Do you know what industrial minerals are? You may not know them, but they permeate nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Industrial minerals are used, either in processed or natural state, to make building materials, paint, ceramics, glass, plastics, paper, electronics, detergents, medications and medical devices, and many more industrial and domestic products.
According to the Industrial Minerals Association of North America, every American consumes about 24 tons of industrial minerals each year.
Industrial minerals are generally defined as minerals that are not sources of metals, fuel, or gemstones. So what are they? The most widely-used industrial minerals include limestone, clays, sand, gravel, diatomite, kaolin, bentonite, silica, barite, gypsum, potash, pumice, and talc. Some of the industrial minerals commonly used in construction, such as crushed stone, sand, gravel, and cement, are called aggregates.
Industrial minerals are extremely versatile; most have at least two, sometimes many more, applications and span multiple markets. Talc, for example, is used in cosmetics, paper, and plastics. Silica sand is used to make glass, ceramics, and abrasives. While industrial minerals are defined as non-metallic, there are a few that have metallurgical properties, such as bauxite, which is the primary source of aluminum ore and is also used to make cement and abrasives. Bentonite and barite are non-fuel industrial minerals that have an important application in oil and gas extraction as components in drilling fluids. Bauxite and kaolin are used in fracking operations.
Industrial minerals are valued for their physical and chemical properties that make them so useful for so many products, and their price is driven by market demand for these items rather than by commodities exchange markets. Manufacturing, agriculture, and in particular the recovering construction and housing markets, are contributing to market growth for these minerals. For an in-depth look at the role of industrial minerals in the U.S economy, read the 2013 U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Summaries.
Market demand for industrial minerals also influences how they are mined. Industrial minerals are extracted primarily by surface mining, which is less expensive than underground mining. However, even when a location is determined to have a potentially economically viable mineral deposit, the costs of drilling, extraction, and transporting the raw materials still must be considered and weighed against the current market demand for that particular mineral. Industrial minerals are typically mined from existing sites or areas that are close to infrastructure as their price usually doesn’t justify the cost of building up the infrastructure needed to explore a new site.
Before a mining plan is developed, geologists need to map out the mineral distribution of the deposit by evaluating the geological processes, also called mineralizing events, which formed them. Once it’s been determined that a sufficient quantity of minerals exists and cost-effective mining can begin, geologists study the lithology and other geochemical data to direct and control the mining process. This is where X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis can assist. XRF is one of the most advanced tools for exploration and mining of industrial minerals. Portable XRF analyzers are an emerging instrument of choice for in-quarry exploration and evaluating the composition of raw materials such as phosphate, potash, gypsum, and limestone for industrial use. Other useful applications for portable XRF analysis in industrial minerals mining include:
- Determining penalty elements in limestone, Fe ore, and bauxite
- Blending and sorting of raw materials
- Flagging grade, sub-grade, and waste, and prevent taking ore to the waste heap.
Lab-based XRF is a complimentary technique for evaluating prepared mineral samples for quality control and to determine their suitability for specific applications. Please share your experiences with either a portable or lab-based XRF analyzer for industrial minerals applications. As always, we welcome your comments.