As a geologist, I am keenly aware that all of us depend on a wide variety of minerals every day to enhance our quality of life; many of these minerals are mined in my home state of Virginia. As the official state geologist, I am also aware that minerals play an important role in powering our state and national economy by creating jobs. Statewide, we have approximately 430 non-fuel or “mineral” mines employing more than 8,000 people. The sites include quarries, sand and gravel pits and other surface and underground mining operations that supply various industries. These industries manufacture products that play important roles in our daily lives. Minerals such as kyanite, feldspar and heavy minerals sands found here in Virginia are used in variety of products ranging from medical replacement joints to furnaces — and even the kitchen sink:
Kyanite: An attractive blue-gray mineral that occurs in long blades, kyanite is stable at high temperatures and is, therefore, an important ingredient in industrial and household ceramics. My own county of Buckingham, in central Virginia, is the only place that kyanite is mined in the entire Western Hemisphere. Mullite, a related mineral, is made by the heating of kyanite. The most important use of kyanite and mullite is in the manufacture of refractory products such as the bricks, mortars and kiln furniture used in high-temperature furnaces such as those used in the steel industry. They are also used in the automotive and railroad industries, where heat resistance is important. Other uses include industrial ceramics, spark plugs, brake shoes, pottery, sinks and tile.
Feldspar: The most common rock-forming mineral, and the most abundant mineral in the Earth’s crust, feldspar is mined from the Montpelier anorthosite in Hanover County, just a few miles west of Richmond, our state capital. It’s used in the production of container glass and fiber glass insulation. In glass, the feldspar improves hardness and durability. Much of the glassware in your kitchen is manufactured with feldspar-based additives.
Heavy minerals sands: If you’ve ever visited Atlantic beaches, you’ve noticed fine black streaks mixed in with the white beach sand. These are tiny grains of heavy minerals such as zircon, ilmenite, rutile and leucoxene. These minerals are also abundant in ancient beach sands in the western Coastal Plain near Interstate 95. All of these minerals have important industrial uses when separated from the lighter minerals forming the bulk of the sand. Metallic elements such as titanium extracted from heavy minerals sands are used for paint pigment, aircraft parts, and medical replacement joins including knees, hips and heart valves.
These minerals represent just a few of Virginia’s vast resources and are critical components in many of the products we use daily. If our state and country are to remain leaders in manufacturing, we must develop a strong domestic minerals policy that promotes investment in domestic mining and improves state and federal regulatory cooperation. Such a policy would foster a diverse and robust raw materials supply chain that frees us from dependence on unreliable foreign sources.
David Spears, Virginia state geologist.