Alberta’s geology is favourable for several types of industrial minerals and building stones distributed throughout the province, including sand, gravel, salt, silica sand, granite, potash, sandstone, dolomite, and limestone.
Sand and gravel is the most important industrial commodity in Alberta in terms of production. Other industrial minerals and building stones currently being quarried are limestone, dolomitic siltstone, sandstone, shale, silica sand, shale/clay, and salt. Other materials that are being extracted are peat and humalite.
Over the last decade, research and development on the concentration and separation of bitumen as well as heavy minerals from oil sands tailings led to more recent pilot programs that were able to recover heavy minerals such as zirconium and titanium. Commercialization of this processing may produce zirconium and titanium as a by-product of bitumen recovery from oil sand tailings in Alberta.
Building stone is a naturally occurring used primarily as a construction material and less importantly as a decorative material. Building stone is sold in natural or broken sizes and shapes. The term ‘dimension stone’ (sometimes called ‘cut stone’) is typically building stone quarried in rectangular blocks then sawed and finished to a specified size.
The most common applications of building stone in Alberta are the following:
- Buildings: columns, lintels, roofing, flooring, electrical panels, mantels, chimney hearths, countertops, tabletops, desktops and tiles
- Rough construction: retaining walls for erosion control, weight retention in dams and power generating stations, and rip-rap or rubble for fill material
- Landscaping: signage, curbs, edging borders around lawns or gardens, and walls
- Paving: flagstone for patios and driveways, crushed stone for pathways and baseball diamonds
- Monuments: tombstones, historical markers
- Artistry: carvings, picture frames
Alberta produces sandstone, siltstone, limestone, and fieldstone, and there is potential for granite, slate, and volcanic rock. The most widely used building stone in our province is sandstone due to its abundance and ease of workability. Several buildings throughout the province are made of the Paskapoo sandstone, including the Alberta provincial legislature building in Edmonton.
Further information about Alberta’s building stone types, properties, applications, source locations, and general geology can be found in Open File Report 2010-01: Building Stone in Alberta.
Paskapoo sandstone - Alberta provincial legislature building in Edmonton
Limestone is used as a building stone, in landscaping, or it is crushed for use as an aggregate for road construction. Limestone in its purest form (calcium carbonate) is used for cement and lime making, as well as for neutralization of acid conditions.
Limestone is exposed in Cambrian, Devonian, and Mississippian formations in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. Limestone is currently being quarried at ten locations. The two largest quarries are at Cadomin (McLeod mine) and Exshaw (Gap mine), both producing limestone for cement from the Devonian Palliser Formation. Two other quarries, at Canmore and Crowsnest Lake, produce from the Carboniferous Livingstone Formation for use in lime making. Two smaller operations, at Nordegg and at Corkscrew Mountain near Rocky Mountain House, use equivalent Carboniferous strata of the Pekisko Formation for a broad range of agricultural and industrial limestone products.
Graymont’s limestone – Crowsnest Pass southern Alberta
Magnetite has several industrial uses including in heavy concrete, water filtration, as heavy media in coal mining, mineral fillers, as source of iron for chemicals (ferric chloride, ferric sulphate, iron fertilizers) and landscaping.
The most important source of magnetite are the paleoplacer beds in southwestern Alberta. The Burmis magnetite deposits, including the Marasek, Milvain, and Boutry, are located in the southern Mountains and Foothills. The Burmis magnetite deposits are magnetite-rich beds hosted by Upper Cretaceous Belly River Group sandstone. The Belly River sandstone likely formed in a beach environment along the margin of the Upper Cretaceous Colorado Sea. These magnetite occurrences have been known since the early 1900s, and were further explored as a source of magnetite for recoverable dense medium separation in the coal industry. In 2003, a resource estimate of about 111 200 tonnes of rock yielded an average grade of about 60 wt.% magnetic minerals.
Peat is a heterogeneous mixture of decomposing vegetation in a poorly oxygenated and water-saturated environment called peatland (or muskeg). Peat in Canada is mostly used in horticulture as growing media for plant growth stimulation and root development. Peat can also be used as an absorbent of hydrocarbons to clean up spills. Peat accumulates very slowly, for that reason its extraction is done carefully to allow its renewal in peatlands. Alberta’s peat production as estimated by Natural Resources Canada in 2014 was 221 000 tonnes at a value of $45.6 million dollars.
Peat production from northeastern Alberta.
- Surface Material Applications – Alberta Environment and Parks
- Alberta Wetland Policy - Alberta Environment and Parks
- Wetlands - Alberta Environment and Parks
Potash is an alkaline potassium compound mostly used in food crop fertilizers. Potash occurs naturally as potassium chloride as an impurity of salt.
The Alberta portion of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin contains an enormous volume of pure or nearly pure halite in the Lower to Middle Devonian Elk Point Group. When present, salt impurities occur mainly within the Devonian Prairie Evaporite Formation. A significant part of Canada’s potash reserve is found in the Prairie Evaporite Formation beneath the plains of Saskatchewan. Therefore, a local-scale potash deposit may exist in the Prairie Evaporite Formation of southeastern Alberta.
Previous government studies carried out in the mid-1990s reported that formation waters of the Beaverhill Lake Group, which overlies the Prairie Evaporite Formation, have elevated potassium concentrations of up to 19 000 mg/L.
Formation waters containing high potassium concentrations are also prevalent throughout western Alberta in areas that are not underlain by the Prairie Evaporite Formation. The most significant concentration of high-potassium waters occurs in the Swan Hills Member of the Beaverhill Lake Group, which represent early Beaverhill Lake reef growth in the Swan Hills area of west-central Alberta.
Salt (sodium chloride) production in Alberta is mainly from the extraction of salt brines to manufacture chloralkali, as well as solution mining of sodium chlorate from the Upper Lotsberg salt deposit in the Fort Saskatchewan area. Yearly salt production has been around 200 000 to 250 000 tonnes in the last five years.
Operating salt extraction sites are at the Calling Lake mine in north Athabasca; Mitsue mine near Slave Lake; Riverview mine near Lindbergh and Sunnynook mine near Drumheller. These major salt deposits occur within the Lower to Middle Devonian Elk Point Group, which comprises limestone, dolomite, anhydrite, rock salt, red bed, and fine- to coarse-grained siliciclastic rocks. It unconformably overlies Precambrian or lower Paleozoic rocks that have up to 1400 m of relief and is overlain by a thin flat layer of green or reddish brown shale of the Watt Mountain Formation. Salts of the Elk Point Group can be divided into three main groups.
- The lower and upper Lotsberg Formation salts occur in the Lower Elk Point Group and are separated by unnamed red shale that ranges in thickness from 28 to 67 m.
- The Cold Lake Formation salt represents the middle to upper part of the Lower Elk Point Group.
- Lastly, the Prairie Evaporite Formation consists of a thick sequence of evaporite that occurs in the Upper Elk Point Group. The Upper Elk Point Group is much more widespread in distribution relative to the lower Elk Point Group. The Prairie Evaporite Formation underlies most of southern Saskatchewan and parts of southwestern Manitoba and eastern Alberta
Sand and Gravel
Alberta’s largest industrial mineral production value is from sand and gravel deposits. Sand and gravel production as estimated by Natural Resources Canada in 2014 was 79 million tonnes, valued at $936 million dollars.
Thousands of sand and gravel pits are being mined throughout the province to supply aggregate for the construction, fill, and cement manufacturing industry. Sand and gravel is mostly used in transportation infrastructure and public and private construction. In 2001, the Alberta aggregates industry employed more than 10 000 people, had total annual revenues of ~$500 million, and produced aggregate from close to 6000 sand and gravel pits.
Primary sources of sand and gravel are from near-surface preglacial, glacial, eolian, and recent alluvial deposits of Paleogene to Quaternary age. Gravel operators were reporting that resources are being rapidly depleted and that quality is in decline. As well, long haul distances due to uneven distribution of the resource have added to increasing costs. The shortfall of sand and gravel in some regions has already resulted in the use of bedrock sources (crushed stone) for aggregate.
- Sand and gravel deposits with aggregate resource potential
- Surficial Geology of Alberta map
- Acquiring surface material dispositions on public land - Alberta Environment and Parks
- Sand and Gravel Pits (On private land) - Alberta Environment and Parks
Silica sand (or quartz sand) is a granular, naturally occurring material primarily composed of quartz with minor amounts of other minerals such as feldspars, carbonates, iron oxides, micas, clay, and organic constituents. Silica sand is evaluated for industrial use based on its composition and physical properties. The silica sand is sold mainly for the manufacturing of fibreglass, insulating materials, silica flour, silica fume, sandblasting, water filtration and various other uses in the construction and oil and gas industries. Silica sand can also be an important source of ‘frac sand’ for hydraulic fracturing operations in the oil and gas industry. ‘Frac sand’ is a high-grade quartz sand with crush resistant rounded grains. Alberta has an active silica sand mining operation and processing plant in the Peace River area (Peace River Silica). A major project for ‘frac sand,’ the Firebag project, is currently under development north of Fort McMurray with inferred resources as of 2014 of 45 million tonnes of silica sand.
Elemental sulphur in Alberta is the by-product of sour natural gas processing, refining of crude oil, and bitumen upgrading into synthetic crude oil. Sulphur recovery started in Alberta as a way to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions. The main commercial use of sulphur is to produce sulphuric acid for use in fertilizer production and other industrial applications such as pulp and paper chemicals, batteries, detergents, fungicides, cosmetic and hygiene products, pharmaceuticals, and water treatments. Alberta is the major producer of elemental sulphur in Canada, with preliminary estimates by Natural Resources Canada for Alberta of 4.5 million tonnes, valued at $261 million in 2014.
Sulphur stockpiles from petroleum production – Fort Mc Murray