Saskatchewan’s industrial minerals

By IM Staff
Published: Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Saskatchewan is best known for its potash mining, but as the staff of the Saskatchewan Ministry of the Economy explain, the Canadian province has many more minerals to offer.

Industrial minerals have been a staple in Saskatchewan’s mining industry for over 100 years and the state is regarded as one of the most mining-friendly places in the world. The Fraser Institute’s 2014 Survey of Mining Companies ranked Saskatchewan first in Canada and second overall, behind Finland, out of 122 jurisdictions in overall investment attractiveness in mining.

Potash is Saskatchewan’s provincial mineral for a good reason, as it contributes more to the province’s economy each year than all other minerals combined. In 2015, the value of potash sales was approximately Canadian dollar (C$) 6.1bn ($4.4bn*), and the province set a new record in 2015 by producing over 18.2m tonnes potassium chloride (KCl). 

Over the past decade, Saskatchewan’s potash industry has been in a phase of substantial growth. During this period, expenditures for new potash projects have, on average, accounted for more than 35% of the total spent on mineral exploration and development projects in the province. A number of companies are advancing potash projects that range from early-stage exploration to pre-construction development. 

In 2012, Germany’s K+S Group started constructing the 2.8m tpa Legacy potash solution mine, the province’s first new potash mine in over 40 years, with investment of over C$4bn and initial production slated for this year. Elsewhere, BHP Billiton has invested over $3bn so far on its Jansen potash project, which has the potential to be the world’s largest underground potash mine, with a projected capacity of up to 12m tpa KCl. Other global mining companies, such as Vale, Rio Tinto, JSC Acron and Yancoal Canada, are all active in potash projects in the province. In addition to working on new projects, Saskatchewan’s three current potash producers – Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan (PotashCorp), The Mosaic Co., and Agrium Inc.– have committed over $14bn to roughly doubling production capacity at their 10 existing mines. 

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Salt

The Prairie Evaporite Formation, which hosts the province’s potash deposits, is also a massive salt resource, averaging 120 metres in thickness across much of southern Saskatchewan. Salt is currently produced as a by-product at five of the province’s potash mines and as a primary product from one independent solution mine, near Unity. 

More than 20 companies have been involved in sodium sulphate development work in Saskatchewan over the past 90 years. Sodium sulphate is extracted from evaporite deposits that develop in groundwater-fed, postglacial, hypersaline lakes that occupy internally drained basins. Mirabilite, thenardite, bloedite, epsomite and other salts become concentrated in thicknesses of several metres in ephemeral and perennial saline lakes. The southwest of the province hosts hundreds of these alkaline lakes and the 20 largest sodium sulphate deposits have a combined historic resource estimate in excess of 50m tonnes. The province currently produces high-purity anhydrous sodium sulphate products at Chaplin Lake and specialty potassium sulphate products at Big Quill Lake.

Clays

Saskatchewan also has a wide variety of potentially economic clays hosted in Cretaceous, Tertiary and Quaternary strata across the south of the province. The province has been producing clay products since the early 1900s, starting with fabrication of clay-fired brick. The discovery of large oil and gas reserves in western Canada drove production of swelling clays, such as bentonite, through the 1940s and 1950s. Ceramic clays have been used to create a host of products, including refractory brick, pottery, flue tiles, structural tile, earthenware and stoneware. Bloating clays were used in the production of lightweight aggregate for concrete; kaolin clays have been used as a paper whitener and, more recently, as a meta-kaolin cement substitute. 

Silica sands

High-purity silica sands are widespread and relatively near the surface, over large regions of the province. Cretaceous (Mannville Group), Ordovician (Winnipeg Formation) and glaciofluvial sands have been exploited in Saskatchewan since the 1930s, when Hud Bay Mining and Smelting Co. Ltd. began quarrying sand for use as flux in its Flin Flon zinc smelter. However, commercial production of Saskatchewan’s silica sands only began in the mid-1980s. Since then, extensive research has been carried out on these deposits, including x-ray diffraction, brightness and reflectance tests, as well as compressive strength tests and fracture analysis. Initially investigated as a source of industrial silica and as foundry material in glass production, Saskatchewan silica sands eventually found a niche market in golf course bunkers. Now, these deposits are primarily targeted as proppants for hydraulic fracturing, with recent production from the Winnipeg Formation. 

Deep formation brines, which are co-produced from petroleum wells across southern Saskatchewan, have shown elevated concentrations of elements such as bromine, iodine, lithium, magnesium, boron and potassium.

The province has also had sporadic production of a few other industrial minerals, including building stone, naturally fired clay (ornamental clinker), leonardite (a humic acid source) and pumicite (volcanic ash).

*Conversion made February 2016