March/April 2010

Historical Metallurgy

The beginnings of mineral processing research in Canada (Part 3)

By F. Habashi


The Mines Branch had its offices on Sussex Street in Ottawa from 1913 to 1957.


The Canadian Bureau of Mines and the Mines Branch

Eugene Haanel was born in 1841 in Breslau, Prussia (now, Wroclaw, Poland). An adventurous young man, he set sail for America at the age of 15. Within a few years of arriving, he joined the Unionists in the American Civil War. After the war, Haanel went to study at the University of Michigan and eventually returned to Breslau, where he obtained a doctorate in physics. In 1873, Haanel came to Canada to teach science at the Victoria University in Cobourg, Ontario. Later, he moved to the University of Syracuse in New York.

One of Haanel’s former students, Clifford Sifton, was to rise to prominence as Canada’s Interior Minister in 1896. In this capacity, Sifton offered his former teacher the directorship of the newly created Mining Section in his ministry, which was to be separated from the Geological Commission of Canada formed earlier. Haanel accepted the offer and in 1901, at the age of 60, he came to Ottawa to organize what later became known as the Mines Branch. Haanel directed the Mining Section and the Mines Branch for 19 years until he retired in 1920.

The first assay office

Haanel’s first order of business, within a month of assuming charge, was to create the Assay Office of The Dominion of Canada. This was necessary in view of the large amount of gold produced in British Columbia (229,000 ounces in 1900) and Yukon (1 million ounces in 1900), following the gold rushes of 1858 (British Columbia) and 1896 (Yukon).

Electric furnace research

Seeking to encourage the exploitation of Canada’s iron ore deposits and the abundant electrical energy from Niagara Falls, Haanel organized a mission to Europe to study steel production using electric furnaces. Between January and April 1904, the mission visited Sweden, France, Italy and Germany. In 1906, building on what was learned on the tour, Haanel and his colleagues organized tests in Ottawa to smelt iron ores from all over Canada. The tests were supervised by Paul Héroult (1863-1914), the inventor of the electric furnace and the aluminum process, in a furnace of his own design. The tests confirmed the possibility of smelting Quebec’s large-deposit titaneferrous iron ores. The test results were published in Haanel’s 1909 book, Report on the investigation of an electric shaft furnace, Domnarfvet, Sweden, etc.

Taking note of peat and coke

The next step in developing Canada’s mineral resources was to find and secure a supply of the reducing agent and the fuel that metallurgical processes required in great quantities. During their European visit, Haanel’s group had visited the Industrial Exhibition of Peat in Berlin (February 1904) and had been struck by the enormous potential of the resource. Noting that Canada was spending about $21 million to import coal and coke, Haanel pressed for the exploitation of the large deposits of peat in Ontario and Quebec. He also drew attention to the need to stop using wood as a fuel to conserve the forests.

Nonferrous metals research

In 1905, the Mining Section commissioned consultants to evaluate the lead-zinc deposits in British Columbia. They recommended improving the beneficiation process so that an acceptable grade of concentrate could be obtained. In 1906, it was noted that cobalt recovered from silver-cobalt ore in Cobalt, Ontario, was not in demand. Reports were also prepared on the nature of and exploitation methods for industrial minerals such as asbestos, mica, graphite and raw materials for cement manufacture.

The Department of Mines

As a result of all these studies, the Department of Mines was founded in Ottawa in 1907 with Haanel as its first director. In 1908, The Royal Mint was also established in Ottawa. It is noteworthy that the U.S. Bureau of Mines was founded only in 1910, three years after its Canadian counterpart. Canada’s Ministry of Mines played an important role in sensitizing authorities to the fact that people with know-how were required to exploit the natural resources of the country. The Ministry hired several professionals and specialists to study mineral resources in a series of studies over two decades, the results of which were published as Mines Branch Reports. Notable among these were:

  • A 1905 report on the flotation of sulphide minerals, especially molybdenite using oils.
  • A 1908 report on the bituminous schist of Alberta.
  • Studies on the production of copper in 1909.
  • Studies on the deposits of pyrite in 1911. Pyrite was thought to be good for export to the United States (which was importing it from Spain) and as a source of sulphur dioxide for the pulp and paper industry which had not yet been established in Canada.
  • Studies on the production of cobalt and mica in 1912.
  • A 1913 report on the bituminous sands of Athabasca.
  • A 1915 study on molybdenum conducted at the request of the Colonial Institute of London, which was interested in the development of special steels for the war effort (World War I).
  • A 1918 report on silica.
  • A 1919 study on iron oxide pigments.
  • Studies on bentonite and graphite in 1920.
  • Studies in 1921 on talc and steatite from Flin Flon sulphide ore.
  • Studies on feldspar and abrasives in 1922 and 1923, respectively.

Hydrometallurgical research

Serious hydrometallurgical research in Canada started in 1921 at the Ministry of Mines. There was an attempt to recover zinc from the complex sulphide ores at Flin Flon by roasting, followed by water and acid leaching. However, no concrete results had been obtained. A year later, chemist R.J. Traill started a modest program of research in hydrometallurgy and electrometallurgy,  which grew gradually over the next few years. Traill sought to treat complex sulphides using the prevalent methods, but with the objective of recovering all the constituents of the ore.

In 1925, hydrometallurgical tests were also conducted to recover gold and copper from pyrite supplied by Noranda. Agreements of cooperation were signed with the Base Metals Extraction Company of the United Kingdom and Canada’s Cassel Cyanide Company in 1927 and with the American Cyanamid Company in 1929. The Base Metals Extraction Company supplied and equipped a hydrometallurgical research laboratory, where work was initiated in 1929 to recover zinc from a sulphide concentrate by roasting, leaching and electrowinning.

The Great Depression of 1929 dampened all this research activity. However, in the same year, a uranium ore in Haliburton County, Ontario, became the object of great interest, especially for the recovery of radium, an element that was in great demand at that time. In 1930, Gilbert Labine (1890-1977) discovered a rich uranium deposit containing silver at Echo Bay in Northwest Territories. Twenty tonnes of this ore were delivered in 1931 to the Bureau of Mines for hydrometallurgical treatment. The challenge of developing a method for the extraction of radium from this ore was taken up by none other than Traill.

In 1933, Traill published his work in the Transactions of the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (Vol. 36, 448-467). The paper, entitled “Extraction of Radium from Pitchblende of Great Bear Lake,” marked the beginning of Canada’s involvement in radioactivity research.
At about the same time, Eldorado Gold Mines in Port Hope, Ontario, constructed a new on-site plant for the production of radium. Extensive research on the cyanidation of gold ores was also conducted in the 1930s. Driven by the need to wean the country of bauxite imports, research into the treatment of nepheline syenite from Ontario for the production of alumina began in the 1940s.

In 1957, the Mines Branch moved to its new premises on Booth Street. Under the leadership of Kenneth W. Downes, who had assumed charge of the extractive metallurgy division in 1961, visits were conducted to gold mills to collect data on commonly encountered problems, for which solutions were actively researched. As a result, the gold leaf test was standardized. It was used to test for the active cyanide in solution. Other rapid tests to determine the quantity of oxygen in solution were also developed.

In January 1962, the superintendents of some 20 gold mills met for two days at the Mines Branch to examine the situation of gold extraction. This meeting resulted in the formation of the Canadian Committee of Gold Metallurgists in 1963 to encourage the exchange of information on gold technology. In 1968, the committee’s scope was expanded to include all aspects of mineral beneficiation. Consequently, its name was changed to the Mineral Processing Committee. While hydrometallurgists at the Mines Branch were actively exploring methods to improve the cyanidation process, metallurgists at the physical metallurgy division were studying the metallurgy of gold and its alloys to find new applications. During this period, the mineralogy of platinum metals was also examined.

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