North American minerals meet: Things to do in Denver...

By Mike O'Driscoll
Published: Monday, 27 April 2009

…when you’re in the minerals business! IM reports on the 2009 SME Meeting which covered China, rare earths, new and emerging issues, and reducing the carbon footprint by Mike O’Driscoll, Editor

 
This year’s event run by the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration Inc. (SME) claimed to attract 4,215 attendees – no mean feat in these challenging times. Sure, most exhibitors admitted to IM that traffic at the 2009 SME Annual Meeting & Exhibit was certainly down on the previous year (held in Salt Lake City), but others were positively surprised with Denver’s level of attendance.

The event is a longstanding and established one in the international mining and minerals calendar, and this year’s event slogan was: “Stewardship and sustainability – Getting it done in the 21st Century” – indeed, “getting it done” just this year will be a challenge for many.

“Get the message out”

The Keynote Session this year was a round-table affair moderated by Barbara Filas, president US operations, Knight Piesold who prompted the viewpoints and opinions of Harry M. Conger IV, president Americas, Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., Gary Goldberg, president and chief executive officer, Rio Tinto Minerals (RTM), Bill Scoggins, president Colorado School of Mines, and Ernesto Sirolli, Sirolli Institute.

Gary Goldberg highlighted the importance of the industry in balancing relations between local communities and technical best practice. As an example, Goldberg used Rio Tinto’s experience in developing its potash deposit in Argentina – Potasio Rio Colorado, in Mendoza, central Argentina (recently sold to Vale, see IM March 09, p.7).

RTM had to shift a by-product salt stockpile away from its close proximity to a river owing to local concern over the potential impact of the salt on the salinity of the river. Although Goldberg assured that there was no technical problem attributed to the stockpile’s presence, RTM deemed the somewhat costly move worth making in order to allay the local community’s fears.

Goldberg went on to comment on how industrial mineral products were “good for the environment and our [mining] business” and that the industry should “get this message out to the public.”

This sentiment very much echoed that of Efthimios Vidalis, chief executive officer, S&B Industrial Minerals SA, in his presentation “Challenges & opportunities”, at the 18th Industrial Minerals International Congress & Exhibition, 31 March 2008, in Athens.

Vidalis talked about the adverse public perception of the mining sector – “The European public is not aware of the link between the extractive sector and the manufacturing and construction industry. “ he said – and underlined a need for its education by the industry.

The SME paper programme comprised several interesting sessions focusing on aspects of the industrial minerals market.

The China factor

In the session “Impact of China on industrial minerals” topics included fluorspar, barytes, attapulgite, rare earths, high alumina minerals, and magnesite.

The common denominator was that for all these minerals, China has imposed export restrictions and this has had a direct impact on availability and costs for these materials. The silver lining, if it can be realised, is for western companies to develop alternative supply sources as soon as possible outside China.

Bill Miles, Miles Industrial Mineral Research, Denver, highlighted how already two new US sources of barytes were being developed in response to a claimed shortage of 4.2SG barytes from China.

Rare earths

Rare earths was covered comprehensively in the session “Rare earths – Geology, Deposits, and Economic Assessment”.

One of the key issues was the evaluation of new rare earth deposits to bring in to production over the next few years in order to meet anticipated increased market demand and reduced raw material supplies from China. Global demand is expected to exceed 200,000 tonnes for the first time in 2013.

Projects discussed during the session included the Lemhi Pass thorium-rare earth district in Idaho and Montana, the Bear Lodge REE property in Wyoming, the Snake Valley- Deep Creek Range Region, in Utah, the Nolans Bore REE-P-U-Th deposit, in Northern Territory, Australia, and supergene REE deposits in carbonatites worldwide.

New technologies

The “New Technologies” session was dedicated to innovations in the mineral processing sector.

Presentations covered vibrating equipment monitoring technology, developments in dry rare earth magnetic separation, jet milling and dry grinding in the submicron range, and reducing the toxicity of asbestos.

Mineral processing supplier Outotec (USA) Inc., based in Jacksonville, Florida, revealed significant rare earth magnetic separation developments that are claimed to result in superior performance. Advancement has become necessary in recent years to address decreasing particle size, maintenance issues, and detrimental design flaws.

In their paper “Significant developments in dry rare-earth magnetic separation”, Misty Dobbins and Ian Sherrell detailed the new developments as maintaining the best features of existing technology while minimising shortcomings.

Outotec (USA) Inc. has also begun development of a hybrid rare earth dry magnetic separator. This new design does away with current belts that can incur downtime and high maintenance costs, and implements a sealed cassette that eliminates the potential for build up of magnetic dust on the magnet roll.

Emerging issues

This session covered a wide range of topics, including changes in the US and international clay industry, global regulation, maintaining and proving reserves, encapsulation of limestone treated waste, microporous ceramic media in bricks, and the impact of social, commercial, and political issues on the industry.

In his paper, “In the future maintaining and proving reserves will be more difficult”, Fred Heivilin, president of HGPS LLC, underlined that the industry was competing for land use with “Endangered Species”, wetlands, farming, forestry, cities, roads, and hunting and that “We’ve mined the best quality, low overburden, easiest to mine and process raw materials.”

However, Heivilin suggested that oversights and mistakes in drilling or interpretation of deposits may be opportunities: “Overburden ratios and other items increasing cut-off costs need to be rethought. Suddenly doubling cut-off ratios for overburden and decreasing pit sizes are good alternatives to looking elsewhere where we might not be able to mine for a number of reasons.”

Carbon footprint

The final day of the conference covered some very topical and thought provoking issues in the session entitled “Reducing carbon footprint in industrial minerals”, and included the carbon footprint of kaolin and calcium carbonate, limestone fines used in CO2 mitigation, and evaluation and use of ultramafic rocks for CO2 sequestration.

Bob Pruett, of Imerys’ paper entitled “The carbon footprint and lifecycle analysis of kaolin and calcium carbonate pigments in paper” concluded that pigments can be used as a means to reduce the overall carbon footprint of paper products.

He described that this is accomplished by “...displacing virgin fibre and other components that have higher carbon intensity, by reducing the energy intensity of manufacturing paper products, and by possibly improving the efficiency of the printer’s operation by reducing ink demand.”

It was pointed out that hydrous kaolin and GCC have low carbon footprints when sold in slurry product forms which do not have the energy intensive processes associated with thermal dewatering.

Western states

The final session focused on industrial minerals and related issues of the US western states, covering bentonite, asbestos, admixtures, vermiculite, iodine, and sapphires.

In her paper, “Factors influencing use of mineral admixtures for the past decade in the western US”, Gretchen Hoffman, of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, reviewed how government regulations have played a large role in increasing the use of artificial pozzolans and supplementary cementitious materials (SCMs) as mineral admixtures blended in cement or concrete. As well as imparting properties, they also lower energy costs and CO2 emissions.

However, Hoffman warned that there are still barriers to mineral admixtures use because of differences in state regulations and experiences with inconsistent quality and availability. Hoffman urged specifications to be updated and clarified.

Awards

As ever the focal point of the SME Industrial Minerals Division’s activities was the Tuesday luncheon, which had as its guest speaker, Dr Ian Wilson, providing us with a most entertaining review of things happening in China industrial minerals-wise.

A number of awards were bestowed on division members: Jessica Kogel, minerals resource development manager, Imerys was recognised as a Distinguished Member for her 20 years services to the SME IndMin Division.

The A. Frank Alsobrook Distinguished Service Award went to Gretchen Hoffman, senior coal geologist, employed for 28 years at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources.

Fred Heivilin, president of HGPS LLC, received the Robert W. Piekarz Award, and Paula Alves, production engineer, Imerys North American Ceramics, received the Young Scientist Award.

The recipient of this year’s Hal Williams Hardinge Award was Ian Wilson, industrial minerals consultant, UK, for “outstanding contributions to the body of knowledge on the geology of industrial minerals, particularly in the areas of kaolin clay and calcium carbonate.”

Next year’s event will be held in Phoenix, Arizona, 28 February - 3 March 2010.