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USGS research in industrial minerals

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Industrial mineral production in the United States is a significant part of the national economy from both the producer's and the consumer's viewpoints. Industrial mineral production in the United States generates on the order of $30 million annually. In 1999, industrial mineral production was worth $29.3 billion dollars (Smith, 2001). This amount was 75 percent of the total value of all nonfuel minerals produced in the United States that year. Of the 25 minerals with the highest domestic production value, 17 are industrial minerals. Domestic industrial mineral producers play an important economic role in providing affordable materials that are essential to infrastructure development and maintenance (including homeland security), agriculture, industry, and mitigation of environmental problems. Industrial minerals are important as fillers in commonplace items like paint, wallboard or sheetrock, shoes, and cosmetics. They are also important to the production of essential components in sophisticated, leading-edge equipment used in information processing and other technologies that are essential to homeland security and national defense. The costs to consumers for purchasing industrial mineral commodities will likely increase as costs to rebuild infrastructure (bridges, roads) and improve homeland security and national defense are added to the total price tag.

Industrial minerals are not an inexhaustible resource. Consumers of industrial minerals are becoming more selective about what they can and cannot use as the need increases for all materials to meet tougher standards important to both domestic industries and to foreign markets. Deposits that are currently suitable may not be so in the future! Policymakers, land managers, and companies exploring for industrial minerals need to understand these changes, and they need better information to guide them in locating new deposits that will meet user and consumer specifications for these increasingly important and critical materials.

Despite their clear importance to our current economic health and to national security, industrial minerals lack visibility, unlike precious metals such as platinum, gold, and silver. Historically, research scientists have never displayed the level of interest in industrial minerals that they do in metallic minerals. The history of industrial mineral exploration and development generally lacks the excitement seen in past gold rushes and has left few lasting impressions; that industry, however, tells the story of how the Nation was built. Industrial minerals are literally the foundation on which our country is constructed, and they are critical if we wish to maintain and improve the standards of living for all Americans.

Another reason that industrial minerals may seem to be invisible is, in part, because of their diversity. Industrial minerals include bulk mineable products (for example aggregate, sand and gravel, and clays) as well as specialty minerals and materials such as decorative granite, silica, rare earth elements, gallium, aluminum, talc, barite, garnets, and emeralds. Some industrial minerals are classified as "common," the implication being that any material of the mineral identified will suffice! Another problem is that the demand for several industrial minerals is small; currently, a few deposits are supplying almost all our needs. In the case of industrial minerals, suitability for use is strongly dependent on the specific chemical and physical properties imparted to the mineral during formation. For example, graphite is made of carbon and is important as a lubricant because the crystal layout of the mineral makes it slippery. It also makes up most of the soft "lead" in pencils. However, carbon having a totally different mineral structure makes diamonds! This example is one of the greatest extremes seen between two industrial minerals, and it clearly illustrates the importance of understanding the chemical and physical properties of formation.

The need for scientific research into industrial minerals is unmistakable because industrial minerals will play an ever-expanding role in many areas of life and also because this diverse set of commodities is being used more often in novel and unconventional applications. In addition, many land-management agencies have a growing need for better geologic and minerals data on industrial minerals, especially in areas adjacent to expanding urban centers. A poor understanding of the genesis of many industrial minerals currently impairs our ability to efficiently explore for them. This lack of knowledge and information will become more problematic for the United States as the industrial mineral deposits now being produced are exhausted.

Eastern United States Industrial Minerals contact:

Nora Foley
U.S. Geological Survey
954 National Center
Reston, Virginia 20192
703-648-6179
nfoley@usgs.gov
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