Tin (Sn) is one of the first metals to be used by humans. Almost without exception, tin is used as an alloy. Because of its hardening effect on copper, tin was used in bronze implements as early as 3500 B.C. The major uses of tin today are for cans and containers, construction materials, transportation materials, and solder. The predominant ore mineral of tin, by far, is cassiterite (SnO2).
In 2015, the world’s total estimated mine production of tin was 289,000 metric tons of contained tin. Total world reserves at the end of 2016 were estimated to be 4,700,000 metric tons. China held about 24 percent of the world’s tin reserves and accounted for 38 percent of the world’s 2015 production of tin.
The proportion of scrap used in tin production is between 10 and 25 percent. Unlike many metals, tin recycling is relatively efficient, and the fraction of tin in discarded products that get recycled is greater than 50 percent.
Only about 20 percent of the world’s identified tin resources occur as primary hydrothermal hard-rock veins, or lodes. These lodes contain predominantly high-temperature minerals and almost invariably occur in close association with silicic, peraluminous granites. About 80 percent of the world’s identified tin resources occur as unconsolidated secondary or placer deposits in riverbeds and valleys or on the sea floor. The largest concentration of both onshore and offshore placers is in the extensive tin belt of Southeast Asia, which stretches from China in the north, through Thailand, Burma (also referred to as Myanmar), and Malaysia, to the islands of Indonesia in the south. Furthermore, tin placers are almost always found closely allied to the granites from which they originate. Other countries with significant tin resources are Australia, Bolivia, and Brazil.
Most hydrothermal tin deposits belong to what can be thought of as a superclass of porphyry-greisen deposits. The hydrothermal tin deposits are all characterized by a close spatial, temporal, and genetic association with highly differentiated, peraluminous porphyritic granite intrusions. The intrusions form pegmatites; disseminated ore; parallel or subparallel, greisen-bordered sheeted veins that either cross-cut the intrusion or are peripheral to it; skarns; and (or) limestone replacements that contain different amounts of cassiterite, molybdenite, and wolframite.
The tectonic settings of tin-bearing granites are relatively well understood and of limited variety. Tin and tungsten deposits and their associated igneous rocks are found mainly in continental settings.
Historically, prospecting for tin has been carried out by the time-honored methods of panning, drilling, trenching, and assaying. Geophysical and geochemical surveys have been employed to cover large areas more rapidly, isolating areas of possible tin deposits so that drilling can be more effective and less costly. Elemental concentrations and relationships of the lithophile elements, especially barium, lithium, niobium, potassium, rubidium, and zirconium, are the most reliable chemical indicators of ore-forming processes and tin-bearing potential.
The average human diet includes an intake of about 10 milligrams per day of tin. Ingestion of tin in significantly greater amounts than 10 milligrams per day may lead to a stomach ache, anemia, and liver and kidney problems. Exposure to some organo-tin compounds can interfere with brain and nervous system function and, in severe cases, can cause death. Extended inhalation of tin oxide—an issue mainly for those people who work in the tin industry—results in a higher potential to develop stannosis, which is a mild disease of the lungs caused by the inhalation of tin-bearing dust. Inorganic tin is poorly absorbed by the body, and no evidence exists for the carcinogenicity of metallic tin and tin compounds in humans.
Most placer tin deposits are mined by open pit and (or) dredging methods. Mining of alluvial placers in modern streambeds and riverbeds is likely to increase the amount of sediment delivered downstream. This, combined with potential diversion of rivers and streams, may negatively affect downstream ecosystems. Many of the placer deposits located in Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are located offshore. Most offshore placer tin deposits are mined by dredging methods, which have the potential to negatively affect benthic, midwater, and pelagic ecosystems.
In a congressionally mandated U.S. Department of Defense study of strategic minerals published in 2013, tin has the greatest shortfall amount (insufficient supply to meet demand) at \$416 million; this amount is more than twice that of antimony ($182 million), which is the strategic mineral with the next largest shortfall amount (U.S. Department of Defense, 2013). The United States imported 75 percent of its tin supply in 2015. During the period 2012–15, these imports were from, in descending order of amount imported, Peru, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bolivia.
A promising advancement concerning research into the origin of tin deposits is the recent development of a reliable method of analyzing tin isotopes in cassiterite. Although the mechanism of transport and deposition of tin is fairly well understood, the means by which tin is incorporated into the parent magma at the points of magma generation and ascent needs further investigation.
Tin metallogenic provinces worldwide are well known. Consequently, any undiscovered tin deposits will likely be spatially close to known deposits or extensions of the same.