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USGS research in industrial minerals

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Geologic and Environmental Research Activities:

Current project focus

Eastern US industrial minerals research objectives

Industrial minerals in the following micromineral and nanomineral environments:

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

Study areas of industrial minerals in the eastern US.
USGS study areas of industrial minerals in the eastern US

The current project focuses on research concerning:

The following is a description of the activities in the eastern region, for whom the contact is Nora Foley (nfoley@usgs.gov). For other regional information, please contact the industrial minerals project leader for the central region, William Langer, or for the western region, James Bliss.

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Eastern United States - research objectives

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:

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.

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Industrial minerals 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

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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). Some of the deposits being mined by the Luzenac Talc Corp. contain minor asbestos minerals and have a trace-metal suite that includes arsenic and nickel. The USGS is helping to identify the mineralogical hosts of the trace metals and minerals. By modeling the formation of these deposits, safe mining practices are ensured. 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.

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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 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)

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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:

Eastern United States Industrial Minerals contact:

Nora Foley
U.S. Geological Survey
954 National Center
Reston, Virginia 20192

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Last Modified: 18 January 2018