Historical and Current Mineral ProductionIn Alberta, companies currently produce minerals by extracting materials from surface pits, quarries, and solution-mining operations. Historically, mineral production activities in Alberta focused on extracting industrial minerals and, to a lesser extent, placer gold and ammolite. Small-scale production of base metals (copper, lead, zinc) occurred in the 1900s. Industrial mineral extraction provided Albertans with important resources for construction (e.g., building stone, cement, aggregate), highway maintenance (e.g., sodium and calcium chloride), drilling additives and frac sand (e.g., bentonite, silica sand), and agricultural fertilizer components (e.g., sulphur). Many of these minerals are still produced today and surveying for new mineral resources is ongoing, with our work focusing on serving provincial, federal, and global mineral needs.
Alberta produced a wide array of minerals throughout its history, including
- bentonite and pumicite,
- clay and shale,
- copper, lead, and zinc,
- fly ash,
- gold (placer),
- marl and tufa,
- peat and humalite,
- sand and gravel,
- silica sand (quartz),
- sodium and calcium chloride,
- sodium sulphate,
- stone (i.e., sandstone, siltstone, limestone, and dolomite), and
Although metallic mineral production has always been surpassed by industrial mineral production in our province, we have had smaller amounts of metallic mineral production throughout our history. For example, placer gold extraction from alluvial sediments occurred throughout most of Alberta’s history at low production rates and there were a couple of past-producers of base metals, for example, copper-lead-zinc extraction at Coppermine Creek (southwestern Alberta) in the early 1900s and lead-zinc-silver at Oldman River (southwestern Alberta) in the 1950s.
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Surface materials in Alberta are unconsolidated sediments mined for an industrial use. Surface materials extracted in our province include sand and gravel, clay, marl, and organic material (e.g., topsoil and peat). In 2018, extracting sand and gravel for aggregate had the largest production value in Alberta’s industrial minerals industry. Sand has uses in the hydraulic fracturing process (frac sand) and in industrial (e.g., filtration, foundries, and landscaping) and recreational sand products (e.g., golf courses, beach volleyball courts, and sand boxes). Uses of marl and tufa, both composed of calcium carbonate, include cement and filler production, animal feed additives, and manufacturing industrial chemicals. Cement and brick manufacturers use the clay. Topsoil uses include lawn and garden application and surface grading around buildings. Extracting peat, partially decomposed plant matter, is mainly used for horticultural applications.
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Metallic and industrial minerals are materials produced by mining or mineral processing. In Alberta, we exclude surface materials and ammonite shell from this definition. Producers in Alberta produce several industrial minerals, including
- limestone for many uses, most importantly Portland cement, quicklime, and construction stone,
- dolomite for many uses including concrete and aggregate,
- sandstone and dolomitic siltstone for construction and landscaping,
- high silica sandstone for frac sand,
- shale mainly for cement and brick,
- sodium chloride for food and water-softening products, and
- calcium and magnesium chloride primarily for de-icing and dust control on roads.
There are no active metallic mineral mines in Alberta. The gold produced in the province is a by-product of sand and gravel mining operations.
Salt is of particular interest in Alberta because it is a multipurpose resource, primarily used as road salt, water softener, and in the food industry. Salt is an industrial mineral and occurs in significant accumulations within rocks of the Middle Devonian Elk Point Group, which contains one of Earth’s most extensive ancient evaporite deposits. The Elk Point Group comprises the Lotsberg, Cold Lake, and Prairie Evaporite / Muskeg formations with the Prairie Evaporite Formation (which underlies approximately half of Alberta) representing the most laterally extensive and volumetrically abundant salt deposits. The aerial extent of salt in the Alberta portion of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin spans roughly 33 200 square kilometres.
Companies are solution-mining salts in the subsurface mainly within the relatively pure upper Lotsberg salt. The chemical industry uses the extracted salt to manufacture sodium chlorate and chlor-alkali products (e.g., chlorine or hydrochloric acid). Additionally, this salt extraction process creates caverns suitable for storage and disposal of industrial waste products such as carbon dioxide. Some companies build these caverns specifically for storage use.
Typically, companies focus their mineral production activities on one or more primary commodities and, if profitable, they will extract secondary minerals (i.e., by-products) during production. In Alberta, this is common in the energy industry, where both fly ash and sulphur are secondary products. Fly ash is a by-product of coal-fired power generation and used by the cement and concrete industries, whereas sulphur is a by-product of sour gas processing. Companies recover as much sulphur as possible during processing. Industry uses the recovered sulphur in agricultural, chemical, and industrial applications (e.g., fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, and steel). Another by-product mineral is placer gold. The gold is extracted in minor quantities during sand and gravel processing. Potential exists for extracting more by-products from oil sands processing waste. Companies are investigating what the potential is and which by-products could be economically extracted.
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Ammolite is the gem trade name for the vivid, lustrous, iridescent layer of aragonite in the shell of specific fossilized ammonites. Ammonites were abundant in Jurassic and Cretaceous seas worldwide until about 65 million years ago. In Alberta, you find ammolite in two extinct ammonite species, Placenticeras meeki and P. intercalare, extracted from dark-coloured Bearpaw Formation marine shales. The exact cause of the iridescent colour and origin are unknown. Artisanal miners collect ammolite from surface outcrops whereas companies use backhoes in open pits. It is primarily sold as jewelry or as collectable specimens.