How Australia’s silica industry is growing without fracking

By IM Staff
Published: Monday, 25 April 2016

Unlike the US, Australia’s silica sand industry has not benefitted from a fracking boom. But as Cameron Perks*, IM Correspondent, explains, the country’s sand producers have a diverse range of expanding markets to choose from.

Australia’s silica sand industry has been well established for several decades, with much of its output going into traditional markets such as construction, glass and foundry. Unlike the US, where the fracking industry has expanded rapidly in the last five years to drive silica sand consumption in oilfields, growth in demand for silica Australia has been spread across a wide variety of markets, including a number of high value applications for quartz sand and silicon metal.

The US was the world’s leading producer and consumer of industrial sand and gravel in 2015. The country produced almost 95m tonnes silica sand last year, making up 53% of world production. About 71% of domestically mined US material was used in US fracking, well packing and cementing sand applications in 2015, while 8% went into other whole grain silica uses; 7% was used in glassmaking; 6% was used as foundry sand; and the remaining 8% was shared between other, smaller markets.

Global demand for industrial silica is forecast to rise by 5.5% per year to 291m tonnes in 2018, according to a recent study by the Freedonia Group, which forecast that the glass, foundry and building products sectors will drive industry growth.

Given its wide range of deposit types and domestic expertise in silica sand mining and processing, it is likely that Australian sand producers will be among some of the chief beneficiaries of this rise in consumption.

Silica sand production in US vs the rest
of the world (2015)

Silica1  

Source: USGS 


Australian silica sand producers

Queensland

In the financial year 2014-15, the Australian state of Queensland mined almost 2.4m tonnes silica, around 2m tonnes of which came from the world’s biggest silica mine at Cape Flattery, 220km north of Cairns, where high grade dune sand silica, suitable for making liquid crystal displays (LCD), used in 90% of the world’s flat screen televisions, is produced. 

Besides Cape Flattery’s output, Queensland’s silica production included around 80,000 tonnes lump and other types of silica. Sand mined for foundries in 2014-15 in Queensland was not recorded at all, while in the previous year, the figure for this type of material stood at 430,000 tonnes, with a total value of around Australian dollar (A$) 9.3m ($7.1m**).

Cape Flattery began operating in 1967 and its major export markets are Japan, Taiwan, the Phillipines and Korea. It was bought by Mitsubishi in 1977 and, in 1987, 500-metre deepwater wharf was added. Besides being the world’s major provider of LCD glass silica, Cape Flattery also supplies the silica used in many of the world’s smartphone screens. 

Australian explorer, Metallica Minerals Ltd, has applied for an exploration licence at Cape Bedford, adjacent to Cape Flattery, where large resources over an area of 50km by 15km exist in dunes up to 100 metres high.

Silica is also mined at Belgium-headquartered Sibelco SA’s North Stradbroke Island project, Earth Commodies Ltd’s Coonarr Creek deposit, South Pacific Sands’ Ningi Sands deposit and at Solar Silicon Resources Group Ltd’s (SSRG) Lighthouse lump silica quartz mine. SSRG also holds the non-operational Mourilyan Sand deposit, which contains silica sand suitable for use in LCD and speciality glass manufacture.

Ceramic end use markets 2007-2014

Silica2  

Source: USGS 


Silica sand production in Queensland 


2013-14

2014-15

Silica type

Quantity (tonnes)

Value 

Quantity (tonnes)

Value

Lump, other and/or unspecified

81,293

A$102,400 

81,435

A$102,579 

Sand, foundries

429,654

A$9.35m 

Not recorded

Not recorded

Sand, glass

1.67m

A$34.86m 

86,374

A$1.74m 

Sand, other and/or unspecified

449,960

A$7.47m 

2,172,902

A$48m 

Total

2.63m

A$51.8m 

2.34m

A$49.91m 


Value refers to value of production rather than value of sales.
Source: USGS



Western Australia 

Western Australia mined 487,248 tonnes silica sand valued at just over A$17m in calendar year 2014, up from 438,688 tonnes the previous year.

Silicon Metal Co. of Australia Operations Pty Ltd (SIMCOA) operates Australia’s only silicon smelting operation. Lump quartz silica is mined at Moora, 177km north of Perth, and smelted into high grade silicon ingots at Kemerton. The plant commenced operations in the late 1980s and expanded its capacity between 2009 and 2013. 

Western Australia is also host to Austsand Mining’s Albany mine, situated approximately 45km northeast of Albany in the state’s Manypeaks region. Albany silica sand is high purity (99.8% SiO2) with a round shape and can be processed into a wide range of sizes by the company’s sizing plant. The sand has recently been earmarked for potential use in high quality glass applications, such as solar panels and LCD panels, due to its very low iron content.

The Austsand operation is owned by Japan’s Tochu Corp., which also owns the Kemerton silica sand mine through its subsidiary, Kemerton Silica Sand Pty Ltd. Material mined at Kemerton is suitable for the sheet glass industry. All silica sand produced from these two mines is exported to Japan. 

Hanson, part of globally operating Heidelberg Cement Group, runs various sand mines in Western Australia, including the Gingin quartz mine and the Gaskell silica sand mine. The Gaskell mine product is suitable for the building industry for use manufacturing, bricklaying, ceramics, concrete roof tiles, filtration media, glass making, house walls and rendering, paving and lawns and synthetic turf, but also as locomotive traction sand and as moulding media in foundries. Exports by Hanson are loaded at the international bulk handling facility at the Port of Fremantle.

Australian silica sand exports by port

Silica sand exports 2012-13

(tonnes)

Silica sand exports 2013-14

(tonnes) 

Cape Flattery (Ports North)

1.68m

2.1m

Bunbury Port Authority

235,657

255,864

Albany Port Authority

206,569

141,158

Port of Brisbane Pty Ltd

81,372

128,039

Burnie (TasPorts)

40,754

40,242

Fremantle Ports

7,766

6,198

Newcastle Port Corporation

5,300

5,644

Total

2.23m

2.67m

Source: Ports Australia 



Australian silica sand exports 2009-2013


Silica3  

Source: UN 


New South Wales

New South Wales contains a wide variety of silica producers. Sibelco operates the Bobs Farm (foundry moulding and glass sand), Salt Ash (foundry moulding, glass), Tanilba Bay (glass) and Northern Dune (foundry moulding, glass) projects, all located around the Newcastle area on the coast, as well as a site at Cressfield (foundry moulding sand) further inland. 

Close to Sibelco’s Salt Ash property, Macka’s Sand and Soil supplies high quality fine-medium grained dune sand from its operation to both the Newcastle area and the city of Sydney. Macka’s currently has permission to produce about 2m tonnes construction sand and recently began supplying silica sand with a grade of 98.83% SiO2 to glass and foundry customers in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Glenella Quarry Pty Ltd operates the Glenella quartz conglomerate deposit near Cowra, while aggregates producer Metromix owns the active Marrangaroo quartzite quarry and Anna Bay mine. 

The Glenella quarry is a quartz pebble conglomerate contained beneath Tertiary basalt and alluvial deposits, with silica grades of over 99.88% SiO2. Typical uses for the pebble product range from decorative block production, exposed and polished concrete applications, roof anchoring and drainage/filter media for filtration plants. Other potential uses include silica metals, alloys, electronic grade silicon, photovoltaic wafers for solar panels, refractories and crucibles. 

Metromix’s Marrangaroo quartzite quarry produces high quality quartzite material for the Sydney construction market, as well as a minor lump silica product. The deposit contains 3.1m tonnes quartzite and reserves within its approved Northeast quarry nearby are approximately 3.5m tonnes.

It is likely that just over 200,000 tpa quartzite is mined from Marrangaroo. Of that, lump silica represents 4-8% of the volume, with the rest sold as concrete aggregate, roadbase, ballast and drainage and filling material. Metromix plans to produce over 1.5m tonnes quartzite over the site’s seven-year mine life, ending in late 2018.

Around six other quarries exist in New South Wales, mining sand mostly for foundry moulding applications. Besides Marangarroo, quartzite is mined at around 20 other operations around the state, mostly intermittently, to serve the dimension stone industry. 

Australian quartz exports in 2014

Silica4  

Total exports = 585 tonnes.
Source: UN, Cameron Perks 


South Australia

South Australia has two operating silica mines, Glenshera and 23-Mile. In 2013, production of glass and foundry sand in South Australia was 476,000 tonnes, predominantly from Glenshera, which is located near Willunga, south of Adelaide. Unimin Australia, which is part of Sibelco, operates the former ACI silica sand pit at Glenshera. Production of silica sand commenced in 1987 and replaced ACI’s former beach dune sand mining operation at Normanville. The mine supplies Australia’s largest container glass plant at Croydon, Adelaide.

Production of crushed quartz from the 23-Mile quarry, 37km northwest of Whyalla, was estimated at 26,000 tonnes in 2013. Now operated by OneSteel Manufacturing Pty Ltd, BHP Ltd commenced mining of lump silica from 23-Mile in 1949. Silica mined here is used as an additive in blast furnaces.

Tasmania

In northwest Tasmania, silica flour is produced by Tasmanian Advanced Minerals Pty Ltd and has in the past been used to produce high quality lens glass, optical fibres, silicon chips and lead crystal, but current production is predominantly used for LCD screens.

The state government has recently been seeking investors to help fund the development of a silica smelter to establish silicon metal manufacturing in Tasmania.

Bulk silica, or rock units, with the potential to yield metallurgical grade silica (>85% silica) have been explored at a number of locations in the state. Maydena Sands Pty Ltd is presently in pre-production phase at Maydena, in the central southern part of the state, for its silica flour and sand deposit, while Mineral Holdings Australia Pty Ltd holds a retention licence over its Cann Creek quartzite and frac sand deposit.

Construction sand – an opportunity for Australian silica?

Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, has a growing population and is experiencing an accompanying rise in homebuilding, driven by booming housing prices, and increasing number of private and government-backed construction projects.

A shortage of construction sand for the Sydney building industry has been predicted for many years. It is estimated that 1m tpa construction sand is already imported from outside the Sydney region to supply this market, a trend that is likely to continue in view of planned major infrastructure and building projects.

The last major study on construction sand in Australia, performed in 2001, estimated that the Sydney region consumed approximately 7m tpa construction sand, a figure that is likely to have grown in the last decade and a half. Anecdotal reports suggest that the new WestConnex project, a large Sydney motorway infrastructure project, has potential to increase demand by up to 3m tonnes alone.

In addition to expanding existing Australian quarries outside the region, options being explored to supply growing demand for construction sand in New South Wales include manufacturing sand and marine mining sand deposits off the state’s coast. However, because sand is a low-value, high bulk commodity, with logistics making up a high proportion of the material’s delivered price, these sources may be turn out to be prohibitively expensive for the construction market.

Aside from construction sand, New South Wales also has the potential to produce more quartz sand for higher value industries. The state’s Kingsgate quartz pipes occurring in granite can be exploited for material suitable for use in semiconductors and for piezoelectric quartz. Pegmatites are widespread in the Broken Hill region (Curnamona Craton) and represent potential for small-scale silica production, along with feldspar and beryl. Low iron granites such as the Rossdhu granite near Oberon could also be mined for quartz and feldspar for glassmaking.

Australian silica sand exports

Silica sand exports from Australia totalled more than 2m tonnes into 2013, according to UN statistics. Ports Australia data suggests that silica sand exports increased in 2014, mostly due to a rise of around 400,000 tonnes from Cape Flattery and a more modest rise of about 60,000 tonnes through Albany Port to the Japanese market. 

Imports

Australia is a small importer of silica sand, bringing in between 1,900 tpa and 4,300 tpa, worth in the region of $1-2m.

*Cameron Perks is a freelance writer and industrial minerals consultant at CPIMConsulting.com. Cameron previously worked with the Geological Survey of New South Wales and has also worked with CSIRO.

**Conversion made April 2016

The mineral silica

Silica, or silicon oxides, with the most prevalent type being silicon dioxide (SiO2), occurs naturally as crystalline quartz, polymorphs tridymite and cristobalite, cryptocrystalline chalcedony and amorphous opal. 

Quartz is the main constituent of most sand and gravel deposits and occurs widely in igneous (especially granite), metamorphic and sedimentary rocks. While crystalline silica occurs naturally and can be mined using standard mining equipment in open-pit or dredging operations, amorphous silica is industrially manufactured in a variety of forms, including silica gels, precipitated silica, fumed silica and colloidal silica.

Silica sand contains range of properties and each deposit is unique. Depending on its physical and chemical characteristics, it has a wide range of uses, including:

• Hydraulic fracturing (fracking), well-packing and cementing

• Foundry sand

• Glass

• Ceramic glaze and body formulations

• Abrasives

• Building products as a primary structural component

• Fillers and extenders

• Silicon and silicon carbide

• Pigments 

• Electronic products

• Water filtration

• Agriculture, horticulture and forestry as soil conditioner or carrier for fertiliser and feed additives