Most ilmenite is mined for titanium dioxide production. Finely ground titanium dioxide is a bright white powder widely used as a base pigment in paint, paper and plastics.
North America and Europe together consume about 50% of the world's titanium dioxide production. Demand by India and China is growing rapidly and may eventually surpass Western consumption.
World consumption rises approximately 5% to 8% per annum, with demand growth most strongly centred in Asian economies. World demand in 2004 was 335,000 tonnes of TiO2 units, representing about 2.4 million tonnes of ilmenite.
Ilmenite is converted into titanium dioxide via the sulfate process. Sulfate process plants must utilise low-vanadium ilmenite, as vanadium is a penalty element. Titanium dioxide pigment can also be produced from higher titanium feedstocks such as rutile and leucoxene via a chloride acid process.
Raw ilmenite is refined by decreasing the iron content. Carbon (anthracite) is used to convert some of the iron oxide in the ilmenite to metallic iron. The products of this process are molten iron (pig iron) and a slag rich in titanium. A related process is the Becher process.
Ilmenite sand is also used as a sandblasting agent in the cleaning of diecasting dies.