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Bismuth

An environment friendly substitute for lead

Highlights

Properties and Uses

Bismuth is a brittle white metal with many unique properties:

  • One of the lowest melting points among metals
  • Expands on freezing
  • Very low thermal and electrical conductivity
  • Non-toxic

Bismuth is used across a wide range of applications that capitalize on its particular properties:

  • Free-machining steel and free-machining aluminum - Owing to the low melting point of bismuth, adding it to steel or aluminum increases the metals’ machinability by reducing power required and wear on tools.
  • Low melting-point alloys - With its low melting point and expansion upon solidification, bismuth is used in low-melting-point alloys that have applications in solder wires, safety fuses and molded products that require the reproduction of fine detail.
  • Pharmaceutical products - Bismuth is used in a variety of pharmaceutical and cosmetic products such as antacids.

Bismuth’s properties are similar to those of lead, except that it is non-toxic, making it a suitable and safer substitute. Growth in the usage of bismuth has been boosted as countries around the world clamp down on usage of lead for various applications, such as:

  • In plumbing fixtures and brass, to avoid toxicity from lead from the pipes leaching into the water
  • As an additive to zinc alloys during galvanization
  • As an additive to steel to improve machinability
  • In shots, bullets and sinkers

Global Supply

There are very few standalone bismuth mines; bismuth is usually found in association with other metals such as lead, tungsten, copper, silver, gold and zinc. Most commercially produced bismuth is a byproduct of processing these metals, particularly lead. Therefore, a more accurate measure of bismuth production is the refinery production rather than the mine production. Due to this reason, the growth in lead production also determines, to a substantial extent, the growth in bismuth production.

China dominates both the world’s bismuth supply and its reserves, with over 80% of refinery production (2015) and 75% of world reserves.