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USGS research in industrial minerals

by Nora Foley, James Bliss, and William Langer

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.

What are we doing?

Three regional industrial mineral projects (fig. 1) that are funded by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Mineral Resources Program (MRP) are designed to promote the study of issues associated with industrial minerals. The projects investigate the scientific relationships among the geologic, economic, and surficial-related characteristics of priority industrial mineral commodities and deposit types. The research within each region tends to focus on issues and geology found within that region. However, project research is not restricted by regional or national boundaries. Industrial mineral projects address a range of issues including geology, petrology, surficial expressions, public health, reclamation, and aesthetics. Commodities include sand and gravel, aggregate, clays (and associated specialty metals), diamonds, garnets, and diatomite. Like a number of other USGS projects, the three projects are overseen by a Cooperative Advisory Team that advises managers about the scope and operations of the projects and provides recommendations on funding. Project products are expected to support various types of industrial mineral models and to develop a better understanding of industrial mineral commodities and potentially economically viable resources. Therefore, industrial mineral research can include investigation into a full range of industrial mineral issues, including genetics, assessing quality and quantity, and economic factors that are expected to help in developing new exploration models and new assessment models. All of this work is fit into a framework set by the MRP.

Map of the conterminous U.S. showing study areas of the three industrial minerals projects.
Figure 1 - Study areas of the three USGS industrial minerals projects.

The current projects focus on research concerning:

  • Processes and characterization (distribution, deposit geology, quality, and other characteristics) of industrial minerals necessary for deposit model development
  • Geologic consequences of extracting industrial minerals
  • Identification of mineralogical and geochemical characteristics of industrial minerals
  • Development and transfer of methods and models that will characterize industrial minerals, potential surficial expressions, and possible health issues
  • Utilization of a common, highly organized, web-based outlet for industrial minerals information
  • Geosocietal factors of industrial minerals development and reclamation.

The following sections highlight selected activities in each region. The aim is to demonstrate the breadth of activities funded by the MRP. Short summaries of all current topics of investigation are given, in addition to more detailed summaries of a small number of activities. For further information, please contact the regional project leaders (link below).

Eastern United States

Research efforts in the eastern United States are focused on expanding descriptive geologic models for industrial mineral resources to encompass process-based models and developing supporting information databases for critical industrial minerals. The three major objectives for the eastern region are:

  • Identifying mineralogical characteristics and geochemical processes of selected deposit models found in the eastern region that impact surficial geology in and near urban centers
  • Advancing our understanding of the geologic and environmental factors that are critical to determining the resource needs of urban areas, especially bulk mineable commmodities
  • Advancing our understanding of the mineralogical and chemical pathways responsible for the cycling of elements in large-scale systems that result in mineable deposits of residual minerals, including kaolin, ball clay, and bentonite deposits.

Because the tasks developed from these objectives are interrelated, the results of each task provide critical contributions to the others.

Research on industrial minerals in the eastern United States includes: (1) industrial minerals in micromineral and nanomineral environments, and (2) studies adapting local models of bulk-mineable resources to regional scales.

Industrial mineral in micromineral and nanomineral environments

Industrial mineral commodities, especially nanominerals and materials, play key roles in infrastructure development and maintenance, agriculture, ceramics industries, and mitigation. The need for scientific research on fine-grained industrial minerals is unmistakable because industrial minerals play an ever-expanding role in our society and because this diverse set of nano- and micro-sized commodities is being used more frequently in novel and unconventional applications (for example, reuse of drilling muds in reclamation efforts). Activities in this task are aimed at developing models describing the origins of nanomaterials formed in residual environments, including clay-type (fig. 2) mineral occurrences (for example, kaolinite, bentonite, vermiculite, talc), bauxite, and iron-oxide deposits, and at identifying the processes controlling surficial availability and mobility of metals as a function of climatic and depositional setting.

Photograph of the Haile kaolinite mine, South Carolina.
Figure 2 - Haile kaolinite mine, South Carolina: Geochemical studies of clay deposits are focused on the genesis of kaolinite deposits formed in mineralized felsic volcanic rocks in the eastern United States and on the unique geochemical characteristics of these deposits. Resulting models will help define the nature and extent of surficial impacts of mining, and so on. Mine site visits courtesy of Cyprus AMAX Corporation, Brewer Company, and Piedmont Mining Company

Clay minerals deposits formed in surficial weathering environments: There is a critical need to develop knowledge of surficial controls on clay minerals because these factors can affect the use of clays in natural and industrial applications. Studies of the mineralogy, major-, minor-, and trace-element compositions, and thermal history of clay deposits are being used to develop models describing the origins of the mineral deposits and the processes controlling mineral and metal availability. Some economically critical elements associated with clays are derived entirely from non-domestic sources (for example, gallium). As a part of genesis work on clay-sized mineral deposits, the contents of metals (arsenic, selenium, mercury, and nickel), air pollutants (for example, fluorine), and other elements (e.g. gallium, gold, and silver) in fine-grained minerals and waste rock from deposits are being established. (Contact Nora Foley, nfoley@usgs.gov)

Bentonite research: There are fundamental gaps in the lifecycle model for bentonite deposits that have critical bearing on end-use, recycling, and reclamation efforts. There is a critical need to develop knowledge of geologic controls because bentonite products sourced in one region are used in industrial applications throughout the conterminous United States and often disposed of onsite. Factors such as mineralogy, salinity, and pH have the potential to affect the use and disposal of bentonites in natural and industrial applications. The objective of this activity is to geochemically and mineralogically characterize the changes observed within distinct bentonite units in order to gain understanding of the geologic characteristics that affect formation, alteration, and preservation and result in unique physical properties having economic significance. The data will be used to address fundamental gaps in the lifecycle model for bentonite deposits (Hosterman and Orris, 1998a, b, and c) that have critical bearing on end-use, recycling, and reclamation efforts. (Contact Helen Folger, hfolger@usgs.gov)

Ultramafic minerals: Important deposits of fine-grained industrial minerals are associated with ultramafic rocks in the eastern United States and worldwide (fig. 3). These commodities include magnesium compounds (salts, metal), vermiculite, refractories (olivine, chromite), talc, asbestos, serpentinite, soapstone, and aggregates. In some settings, deposits of chromite, corundum (ruby, sapphire), emerald, platinum-group elements, nickel, cobalt, and (or) gold are associated with ultramafic rocks. Many of these commodities are projected for major growth in demand. Mining processes, novel uses, and building reclamation of these resources will increase the potential for associated environmental hazards (for example, asbestiform minerals dusts). Projected growth in demand, technology innovation, and changes in current world production for magnesium metal (automotive industry) and vermiculite (mine closure, resource depletion) indicate that new resources for these commodities need to be developed. Domestic industrial mineral deposits associated with ultramafic rocks, located in proximity to areas of market demand in the eastern United States, may meet this market need. For example, the magnesium metal and compounds market may be poised on a major resource supply shift from magnesite deposits to magnesium silicates owing to potential controls and taxes on CO2 emissions from magnesite ores and technology innovations, such as the Magnolia magnesium process that produces magnesium metal from serpentine and asbestos mine wastes. A major growth factor may involve technology to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, which will likely rely on magnesium compounds produced from serpentinites and other ultramafic rocks. (Contact Nora Foley, nfoley@usgs.gov or Gilpin Robinson, grobinson@usgs.gov)

Photgraph of the Rainbow mine in Vermont.
Figure 3. The Rainbow mine (pit being infilled with talc mine waste), Vermont: The ultramafic (talc-serpentinite) belt of Vermont contains deposits of weathered serpentitite mined for talc (cosmetic and industrial grade uses). The wastes from these deposits may be a future source for producing magnesium metal. Our studies will develop integrated models and geochemical databases for use in mining industrial minerals associated with the geologic setting.

Studies adapting local models of bulk-mineable resources to regional scales

The purpose of this activity is to develop, apply, and test techniques developed at detailed scales to estimate sand, gravel, and aggregate resources to regional scales of 1:250,000 and greater. Assessment methods use a combination of surficial mapping techniques and geographic information systems (GIS) to estimate the resources (fig. 4). The data used include water well data, digital elevation models, geologic maps, and diverse GIS data. The task is to address the question of how to successfully adapt a detailed local method to generate regional-scale maps and to address potential societal and environmental issues surrounding mining of bulk industrial minerals. The objective of this task is to test techniques developed at detailed scales to estimate bulk mineable resources at a regional scale. The task began as a pilot study to address the question of how to successfully adapt a detailed local method to generate regional-scale maps. Its objective has been expanded to identify and address regional issues of a geologic, geophysical, and geoenvironmental nature. (Contact Joseph Duval, jduval@usgs.gov)

Map illustrating modeled estimates of sand and gravel resources in the South Merrimack, New Hampshire 7.5-minute quadrangle.
Figure 4. Plan map showing modeled estimates of the sand and gravel resources in the South Merrimack, New Hampshire, 7.5-minute quadrangle

This activity also includes studies of aggregate models aimed at understanding the geologic, environmental, and economic aspects of aggregate mining. It addresses a variety of issues related to aggregate mineral resources and urban dynamics and growth. For example, collaborative studies with USGS scientists in the central and western United States address mining-related issues that result from extraction of high-priority industrial minerals in urban settings. Research objectives include:

  • Determining the resource needs of urban areas and understanding how these needs affect development patterns and how development patterns in turn influence resource availability.
  • Defining the surficial geology and spatial distribution of energy, water, and mineral resources used by urban communities and how resource availability changes as areas develop and evolve. The objective here is to investigate aggregate resources in New England in order to test methodologies for estimating possible resources.

(Contact Lawrence Drew ldrew@usgs.gov)

Central United States

The USGS industrial minerals project in the central United States is entitled, "Sustainable Development of Industrial Minerals " and contains five integrated tasks that interact extensively with one another and are dependent on the results of one another.

Geosocietal issues and industrial minerals

The overall objectives of this task are to:

  • Provide resource managers, communities, and the public with information and tools to better understand and predict the consequences of decisions in land use
  • Prevent unexpected environmental impacts rather than just mitigate
  • Integrate geology and resource management with cultural landscapes.

Many decisions, especially land-use decisions, are (or should be) based, at least in part, on science. Many land-use decisions involve input and consideration from government, industry, scientists, and the public. One objective of this task is to provide resource managers, communities, and the public with information and tools to better understand and predict the consequences of land-use decisions. To that end, four presentations have recently been made:

  • Managing Aggregate Resources (Managing aggregate resources - USGS OFR 02-415) was presented at the Ohio Aggregates and Industrial Minerals Association annual meeting, Columbus Ohio, Nov 2002.
  • Visual Assessment of the Landscape (Arbogast - Proceedings) was presented at Cottbus, Germany, December 2002.
  • Sustainable Development of Natural Aggregate With examples from Modena Province, Italy (Langer, Giusti, and Barelli - SME Preprint 03-45) was presented at the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration Annual Meeting, Cincinnati - Feb 2003.
  • A paper that addresses the issue of geology and specifications for aggregate resources was presented at the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration Annual Meeting, Cincinnati - Feb 2003.

(Contact Belinda Arbogast, arbogast@usgs.gov)

Alluvial fan potential aggregate model

This study is evaluating the suitability of alluvial fan deposits for use as high-quality aggregate and developing a methodology for assessing the aggregate potential of individual alluvial fans based on fan morphology, source area, and geologic history. (Contact Daniel Knepper, dknepper@usgs.gov)

Reclamation characterization and visualization methods

Landscape is a resource that needs to be considered in land-use decisions. The principles of landscape architecture will be merged with physical science information in a multidisciplinary approach in order to develop methods of: (1) relating place to the project, (2) assessing human perception (especially visual impact), and (3) reclaiming infrastructure resource extraction sites. Factors such as aesthetics, soils, climate, native ecosystems (vegetation and wildlife), topography, historical significance, and future multiple land use are important to the complex human perception and process of reclamation. Aesthetics is the one environmental concern that is most closely tied to the appreciation and acceptance of a project, yet, there is very little literature relating visual impacts due to surface mining activities; the public (and courts) demand more data and research in landscape assessment (Smardon and Karp, 1993; Washington Environmental Research Center, 1973). The objectives of this activity are to:

  • Identify the environmental and aesthetic factors that are required to assess the effectiveness of existing and planned reclamation
  • Develop a methodology for evaluating these factors that can be used in future management and land planning

(Contact Belinda Arbogast, arbogast@usgs.gov)

Shallow geophysics techniques for characterizing potential aggregate resources

The goal of this activity is to determine how well an alluvial deposit can be characterized by using various ground-based geophysical methods. This methods development activity will lead to a better approach for assessing aggregate resources that can be applied to other areas where alluvial deposits are the prime aggregate resource under consideration.

(Contact Karl Ellefsen, ellefsen@usgs.gov)

Sustainable extraction of carbonate rocks in karst areas

The primary objective of this work is to gain fundamental understanding of the relationships between natural factors (for example, geology, hydrology, and climate) and the environmental impacts of extracting carbonate rocks from karst areas. The ultimate goal is to establish methods for characterizing carbonate rocks and those environmental impacts.

(Contact William Langer, blanger@usgs.gov)

Western United States

Research on industrial minerals in the Western Region includes five major activities:

  • Assessment of industrial minerals in lacustrine systems: diatomite deposits
  • Megaquarries
  • Gallium deposits
  • Energy-related industrial minerals
  • Current and emerging issues in industrial minerals

Assessment of industrial minerals in lacustrine systems: Diatomite deposits

This work is focused on diatomite deposits developed in ancient lakes in the intermountain basins of the western United States. Diatomite deposits are made up of diatoms, a type of microscopic algae having siliceous cell walls that is found in both fresh water and marine water. Once or twice a year — and with an ideal nutritional and environmental situation — vast numbers of diatoms flourish at once to form "blooms." When the diatoms die, their skeletal remains sink to the lake bottom and create a thin layer. After many blooms over many hundreds of years, these thin layers can accumulate to form diatomite deposits meters thick (fig. 5)!

Photograph showing the Eagle-Picher diatomite mine near Hazen, Nevada.
Figure 5 - The Eagle-Picher diatomite mine near Hazen, Nevada. The diatomite deposit is in 7 to 9 Ma lacustrine sediments that were deposited along the Walker Lane.

Diatomite has a number of uses, including filtration (beer, liquors, oils, greases), filler in paint and paper, and in nontoxic insecticides. It is used for filtration to remove microbes and disease-causing viruses from public water systems (Dolley, 2002). The United States is the world's largest producer and consumer of diatomite. Most comes from the western United States, with California and Nevada producing 87 percent of all U.S. diatomite (Dolley, 2001, 2002).

Research on diatomite is focused on the geologic setting of deposition (fig. 6) and, most importantly, preservation of deposits found in sediments of the Great Basin of late Cenozoic age (15 m.y. to the present).

(Contact Alan Wallace, awallace@usgs.gov)

Photograph of the Panaca Formation in southeastern Nevada.
Figure 6 - Pliocene Panaca Formation in southeastern Nevada. Small diatomite deposits formed in the central part of the basin (white buttes in middle of photo). Most of the basin was filled with alluvial and pedogenic deposits (buff in distance) and pyroclastic-fall deposits (white in front and right foreground).

Megaquarries

This activity is primarily focused on megaquarries in the western United States but is also examining megaquarries in Canada and Mexico that are hypothesized to become major sources of crushed rock imported into the United States. Megaquarries also are likely to become important in other parts of the world (for example, a producing site in Scotland). Production rates from megaquarries are high (5-10 million or more metric tons per year), and reserves will need to be large enough to allow production lives of 50 to perhaps 100 years. Megaquarries will become more important to the future supply of U.S. aggregate. As a result, we need to understand how they might affect the corporate sector involved in the production of aggregate as well as the possible effect they will have (primarily in cost) on our largest consumers of aggregate (such as the state highway departments) and on the federal budget, which funds much of that work. These very large operations present a number of economic and environmental issues that need to be examined. Current research on megaquarries is exploring both the geologic and the economic factors that are likely to be important to future megaquarry development.

(Contact James Bliss, jbliss@usgs.gov)

Gallium deposits

Gallium is a specialty metal used in the fabrication of integrated circuits. The United States relies on imports of gallium and gallium-containing products to satisfy almost all of its needs (Kramer, 2002). Although gallium is not an industrial mineral, recent discoveries in the United States suggest that future domestic sources of gallium may be associated with clays, which are important industrial minerals.

Our research is focused on determining the distribution and genesis of high concentrations of gallium recently discovered in clays and alunite associated with hydrothermal systems at the McDermitt mercury deposit in Nevada. How and where the gallium is located affect its recovery and extraction from the mineralized horizons. Large hydrothermal alteration zones are localized within this and other volcanic centers where deposits of clay have been developed and mined. These alteration zones host potentially significant resources of gallium either as a primary product or as a byproduct of clay extraction. This association may provide a model for other occurrences associated with other types of hydrothermal metallic deposits in the western United States, and it may represent an important source of this metal that has not been widely recognized before.

(Contact Jim Rytuba, jrytuba@usgs.gov)

Energy-related industrial minerals

We are involved in three studies of industrial mineral commodities critical to energy exploration and production:

New occurrence and genetic models for stratiform barite deposits. Stratiform barite deposits are the major source of barite used in the energy industry. Our study will synthesize geologic and chemical data of modern analogues-barite deposits that are forming in modern ocean settings. Barite is an important component of drilling muds used in the exploration for oil and gas. (Contact Randy Koski, rkoski@usgs.gov)

Garnets in placer deposits in Idaho and adjacent states. Garnets have considerable variability in quality, and ways to recognize high-quality deposits need to be developed. Garnets are used in hydrofracturing oil and gas reservoirs to help improve production. (Contact Jim Evans, jevans@usgs.gov)

Diamonds. Natural diamonds play an important role in drill bits used to drill wells, albeit manufactured diamonds have lately become important. This overview will identify rocks and geologic environments that previously have not been recognized as containing economic diamond deposits. (Contact Gordon Haxel, ghaxel@usgs.gov)

Current and emerging issues in industrial minerals

This activity is looking at current and emerging issues in industrial minerals research. It includes research directed at diverse issues associated with homeland security, national defense, and the environment. Work has included publication of resource data on industrial and other minerals in Afghanistan (available at http://geopubs.wr.usgs.gov/open-file/of02-110/) and development of ideas on how to address research on conflict diamonds. Conflict diamonds are those traded outside of official channels to fund activities such as national revolutions (primarily in Africa) and terrorism. Work also is underway on perchlorates. Only recently have they been recognized as being an environmental concern and are thought to be associated with the some past Department of Defense industries and activities. However, perchlorate also occurs naturally in some geologic environments and materials, the extent and nature of which are not fully understood.

(Contact Greta Orris, greta@usgs.gov)

References

Dolley, T.P., 2001, Diatomite: U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Yearbook: http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/diatomite/diamyb2001.pdf.

Dolley, T.P., 2002, Diatomite: U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Summary: Available online: http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/diatomite/250302.pdf.

Hosterman and Orris, 1998a, Preliminary descriptive model of hydrothermal bentonite, in Orris, Greta, editor: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 98-0505, p. 18-20. Available on-line: http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/1998/ofr-98-0505/

Hosterman and Orris, 1998b, Preliminary descriptive model of sedimentary bentonite; deposit subtype; calcium bentonite, in Orris, Greta, editor: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 98-0505, p. 27-29. Available on-line: http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/1998/ofr-98-0505/

Hosterman and Orris, 1998c, Preliminary descriptive model of sedimentary bentonite; deposit subtype; sodium bentonite, in Orris, Greta, editor: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 98-0505, p. 24-26. Available on-line: http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/1998/ofr-98-0505/

Kramer, D.A., 2002, Gallium: U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Summary: Available online:http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/gallium/460302.pdf.

Smarden, R.C., and Karp, J.P., 1993, The legal landscape: Guidelines for regulating environmental and aesthetic quality: New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 287 p.

Smith, S.D., 2001, Statistical summary, in Minerals Yearbook: U.S. Geological Survey, 34 p.: Available online: http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/statistical_summary/871499.pdf.

Washington Environmental Resource Center, 1973, Aesthetics in environmental planning: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., EPA-600/5-73-009, 187 p.

Contacts

Eastern United States

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

or

Central United States

William Langer
U.S. Geological Survey
MS 973, Denver Federal Center
Denver, Colorado 80225
303-236-1249
wlanger@usgs.gov

or

Western United States

James Bliss
U.S. Geological Survey
MS 901, 520 North Park Avenue, Room 355
Tucson, Arizona 85719
520-670-5502
jbliss@usgs.gov

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