Zinc (Zn) was used in Rome and China more than 2000 years ago as a component of brass which is a zinc-copper alloy. Zinc metal was first smelted from zinc ore in India in about 1200 and is known to have been used in China soon after. Commercial production of zinc did not start in Europe until the middle of the 18th century and until 1860 in the United States. In deposits mined today, zinc ore which is rock containing economic content of zinc and/or other materials usually occurs mixed with ores of lead, silver and commonly copper and is extracted as a co-product of these metals.
Deposits containing zinc form from hot or hydrothermal fluids generated within the earth. These fluids may be trapped below the surface in cracks where sphalerite and other minerals may precipitate to make vein deposits. Where limestones occur, the fluids may fill cavities to form rich but patchy deposits. Some fluids may reach the ocean floor in areas of underwater volcanic activity to form volcanogenic deposits. Some are forming today under the oceans off Papua New Guinea and Canada. Other fluids may escape to the surface through cracks or faults into small shallow lakes or seas and under suitable conditions, lead-zinc-silver deposits may form.
More than 13 million tons of zinc was produced in 2013 worldwide. Sixty percent of this is used for galvanizing to protect steel from corrosion thus prolonging the service life of steel products significantly. Approximately 15% goes into the production of zinc base alloys, mainly to supply the die casting industry, 14% goes into the production of brass and bronze and 8% into the production of compounds including zinc oxide and zinc sulfate. The remainder is zinc alloys, mainly rolled, utilized in semi-manufactured applications including coinage and architectural applications..
These first-use suppliers then convert zinc into in a broad range of products. By far the largest application area is construction with 45% of all first-use zinc products used in this area. The transportation sector consumes 25% of global zinc consumption and consumer goods – including electrical and electronic appliances – accounts for 23%. The remaining 7% is used for the manufacture of industrial machinery.