Barite weighs in on critical minerals list
SE Alaska deposit contains some 3.8M tons of weighty mineral Critical Minerals Alaska 2020 – Published October 29, 2020
Last updated 12/23/2020 at 4:32am
The United States is heavily dependent on China and other foreign suppliers for its barite, a mineral critical to the petroleum sector.
Barite derives from barús, the Ancient Greek word for heavy, owing to an exceptionally high specific gravity for a non-metallic mineral. It is this weight that makes barite a key element to the oil and gas sector and lands the mineral on USGS' critical list.
"More than 90% of the barite sold in the United States was used as a weighting agent in fluids used in the drilling of oil and natural gas wells," USGS penned in its annual report, Mineral Commodity Summaries 2018.
Added to drill mud, barite lubricates the bit and drill stem, removes rock chips, helps maintain the integrity of the drill hole and prevents oil and natural gas wells from blowing out when over-pressured reservoirs are tapped. Examples of what happens when these pressured basins are drilled into without barite can be seen in historical photographs showing geysers of oil spewing from new wells drilled in the early 20th Century.
"Barite has an unusual combination of properties – high density, softness, and chemical inertness – that make it exceptionally well suited for this purpose," USGS penned in a 2018 report on the minerals it deems critical to the United States.
Barite also lends its weight to heavy cement used as a jacket around underwater pipelines that transport oil and gas from offshore production, adding an extra layer of protection and prevents the pipes from floating.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that roughly 87% of the roughly 3 million metric tons of barite used in the United States last year was imported.
Alaska hosts deposits of high-quality barite positioned to provide a closer source of the barite needed in both the U.S. and Canada.
China weighs heavy
China, which currently produces nearly a third of the world's barite, was the source of roughly 58% of this heavy mineral shipped to the U.S. during 2019. Most of the balance was supplied from India (17%), Morocco (12%), and Mexico (11%).
"Global dependence on a limited number of countries for specific mineral commodities could lead to sudden supply disruptions for the United States, and barite is one such commodity," USGS penned in a 2014 report on this mineral.
While America's petroleum industry would be hit hardest by such a supply disruption, barite also is used in products such as paints, plastics, rubber and even playing cards.
Taking advantage of the high specific gravity that makes barite ideal for drilling mud, some card makers mix this mineral in the paper they use. This makes the cards heavier and therefore easier to deal around the table.
The mineral also lends its weight to mudflaps, which helps to keep them from "sailing" when the trucks and other vehicles they are mounted to are traveling down the highway.
Other uses of barite by the auto industry is in brake and clutch pads, and as a metal protectant in paint primer.
While most of barite's industrial uses take advantage of its weight, its ability to significantly block x-ray and gamma-ray emissions adds another layer of uses for this critical mineral.
Taking advantage of this radiation blocking characteristic, it is used as aggregate in high-density concrete for shielding around x-ray units in hospitals, nuclear powerplants, and university nuclear research facilities.
This ability to block x-ray emissions is also used as a medical diagnostic tool.
When a patient drinks a thick liquid containing ultrapure barite, barium, the barite coated digestive tract shows up on x-ray. This provides physicians with the ability to "see" soft tissues that otherwise would not show up on this type of imaging.
Quality barite in SE Alaska
Like many of the other minerals critical to the United States, barite was previously mined in Alaska. This production came from Castle Island near the town of Petersburg on the Southeast Panhandle.
Three companies – Alaska Barite Co., Inlet Oil and Chromalloy America – produced roughly 750,000 metric tons of barite from Castle Island from 1966 to 1980.
While very little reserves of barite are known to remain on Castle Island, some 3.8 million metric tons of this critical mineral has been outlined so far at the Palmer project further north on the panhandle.
Being advanced by a joint venture between Constantine Metal Resources (51%) and Dowa Metals & Mining Co. Ltd. (49%), the Palmer project is better known for the base and precious metals also found there.
So, far the partners have outlined 14 million metric tons of resource in two deposits rich in zinc, copper lead, silver, and gold. These metals are hosted in rock that is made up of roughly 25% barite.
"Barite constitutes about a quarter of the rock mass of the defined mineralized zones and ... has the potential to materially enhance the value of the already high-value mineralization," said Constantine Metal Resources President and CEO Garfield MacVeigh.
Wanting to find out whether the barite could be economically recovered in a product that would be useful to the oil and gas sector, Constantine initiated a metallurgical program focused on Palmer's barite earlier this year.
This work demonstrates that 91.1% of the barite at Palmer can be recovered in a clean high-grade concentrate with a specific gravity of 4.44.
The specific gravity is important for barite that would be used as a weighting agent in drill mud.
American Petroleum Institute, a trade association that maintains standards for the global oil and gas sector, prefers a 4.2 specific gravity for barite used in oil and gas drilling. With this heavier barite hard to come by, API lowered this minimum specific gravity requirement for barite to 4.1 in 2010.
Contaminants in barite can cause problems while drilling, especially abrasive particles that can ruin drill bits.
In addition to a specific gravity well above requirements, tests indicate that a barite concentrate from Palmer meets all API and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency specifications for oilfield drilling grade barite, including particle size and purity, and appears to be a market-ready product.
"These results confirm that a premium-quality barite concentrate can be produced from the copper-zinc ores at Palmer, and that it can be achieved by the addition of simple steps to mineral processing," said MacVeigh.
Palmer's proximity to the Pacific Rim deep-water port at Haines is expected to have a significant competitive advantage to delivering barite in North America.
"The project's excellent location, 60 kilometers (37 miles) by road from deep tidewater facilities enables low-cost shipping to markets," MacVeigh said.
Barite-rich Red Dog district
While Palmer is the most advanced, and likely most economically viable source of barite in Alaska, there are other metal-rich deposits in the state that host intriguing quantities of this critical drill mud mineral.
In fact, the Red Dog district in Northwest Alaska, best known for its fantastically high-grade deposits of zinc, is believed to host well above 1 billion metric tons of barite.
Teck Resources Ltd. produced roughly 1.22 billion pounds zinc at Red Dog last year from high-grade deposits on lands owned by NANA Region Corporation Inc.
While the deposits currently being mined contain some barite, the mass quantities of this critical mineral are associated with the next generation of Red Dog deposits about five miles to the north.
Anarraaq consists of a barite body, estimated to be as much as 1 billion metric tons, and an 18 metric ton zone of massive sulfide with 19.4 million metric tons of inferred resource averaging 14.42% zinc and 4.2% lead.
The much bigger deposit in this barite-rich area, however, is Aktigiruq.
While an NI 43-101-compliant resource estimate has yet to be reported for this deposit, the widely spaced holes drilled prior to 2017 suggest this exploration target has somewhere between 80 million and 150 million metric tons of material averaging around 13% zinc and 4% lead.
Though the seasonality of the Arctic port that currently delivers zinc and lead concentrates from Red Dog would currently restrict shipments of barite from the district, this region's proximity to the west end of Alaska's oil-rich North Slope provides interesting market potential for the massive deposits of barite found in this minerals-rich corner of Northwest Alaska.
In fact, the southwest corner of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a 23.6-million-acre oil-rich region of the North Slope, is only about 30 miles northeast of Red Dog.
Late in 2017, the USGS estimated that NPRA, along with adjacent state and tribal lands and waters, hosts roughly 8.7 billion barrels of oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Exploration and development of this massive domestic energy resource would require a lot of barite, a critical mineral that could be supplied by Palmer, Red Dog or imported from overseas sources.