Sustainable quartz extraction

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Elkem is one of the world’s largest miners of quarts, extracting 1,250,000 metric tonnes every year to cover internal demand and sales to external customers. Respect for nature and stakeholders’ interests are core principles of operations and exploration.

Elkem has quarries in Norway and Spain. The largest is Elkem Tana, located in northern Norway with an annual production of 850,000 metric tonnes. Elkem Mårnes, located in the middle of Norway, has a production capacity of 150,000 metric tonnes a year. In Spain Elkem owns 100 per cent of ERIMSA SA. In addition to quarry production, ERIMSA is also extracting gravel quartz from riverbeds formed after erosion of landmasses before and after the ice age. Today, these areas are agricultural fields. ERIMSA has a production capacity of 320,000 metric tonnes per year.

Zero waste

Elkem’s philosophy of zero waste is a core value in the extraction business, which is a part of the Elkem Silicon Materials division. Over the years, Elkem has improved the net use of materials extracted from the quarries and riverbeds. When quartz is extracted from the quarries, blasted rock is transported to a processing plant where they are crushed and screened into different sizes. During the crushing process and following internal and external transportation and handling, friction creates fine particles that are too small for usage in smelting furnaces. In order to eliminate waste, improve the economy of the extraction business and extend the lifetime of extraction sites, Elkem has developed methods to utilise these fine particles.

The four processing plants in Spain separate the metallurgical quartz from the remaining sand and gravel. All size fractions are processed and sold to different users. The metallurgical quartz goes to the metal industry. Aggregates, the largest product in volume, are sold to the building industry. In addition to these two major product lines, specialty products have also been developed.

An example is silicon rich sand, which is sold to dairy farmers as Q-bed, a soft material cows can rest on. Silicon sand has low absorption capacity and allows for better hygiene, health and welfare for the animals, which in turn produce more milk. More than 40,000 cows rest on Q-beds in Spain. Similar products are Q-Golf, Q-Seed, Q-Way, Q-Turf and Q-Play that all exploit the unique qualities of the silicon rich sand.

Land Restoration

Respect for nature is a key value for Elkem’s extraction business. In 2015, ERIMSA received an environmental award from the Spanish Aggregates Federation (FdA), for its restoration of previously mined land into wetlands including lagoons and large meadows, presently used for livestock production. The FdA concluded that the condition of the land and its biodiversity where better after the restoration than before ERIMSA’s extraction of the quartz.

The process of extracting gravel quartz from ancient riverbeds is different from extracting rock quartz from a quarry. For the riverbed, the top soil is first removed to expose the deposit, which is then dug out and screened to separate useful products from sand and soil. As the extraction goes forward, the topsoil is replaced and the area can be returned to agricultural use.

In a quarry, it is not possible to restore the area in the same way. Deep ravines can however be filled and rock faces covered to look compatible with their surroundings. The area can be made safe and fully accessible to the public when the quarry closes.

Quartz extraction has no toxic emissions or discharges, as often is the case with other forms of mining. Elkem’s rules for health and safety apply for the mines as they do for all Elkem activities. Quartz dust does represent a health hazard when fine enough to enter a person’s lungs. All dust-generating processes are closely followed up and personal respiratory protection is available and mandated when necessary.

Exploring new resources

Elkem’s policy is to have accessible quartz resources for at least 20 years of full production. In order to secure new resources, a team of geologists travel to different locations around the world to find quartz with the right qualities. At Nasafjell in northern Norway, zoning for a new quartz quarry was accepted by the Norwegian authorities in February 2016. Nasafjell has a unique deposit of high quality quartz, but is also an area with indigenous community rights and reindeer herding interests. Preparations for operation will therefor take some time as Elkem is committed to ensuring sustainable utilisation of the resources and fair compensation for existing interests.