February 2010

Historical Metallurgy

The beginnings of mineral processing research in Canada (Part 2)

By F. Habashi


The Saint-Urbain operation featured coke oven beehives (top of image) and two blast furnaces.


Mineral discoveries

In the 18th century and, more significantly, during the 19th century, many important mineral deposits were discovered in Canada. Documenting and disseminating information on these discoveries fell to the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys in Ottawa, a task it performed ably.

Fossil fuels

The coal industry, which forms the backbone of the metallurgical industry, is concentrated in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton region. In Canada, coal was first discovered there in the 1720s before being found in other Canadian regions. In addition to its metallurgical uses, coal was also used as a fuel for steam locomotives when railways came to Canada.

The first oil well in North America was drilled in 1857 by Canadian James Miller Williams (1818-1890) at Oil Springs near Sarnia, Ontario. When World War II threatened the tropical sources of natural latex for rubber, Sarnia was selected as the site to develop synthetic petroleum-based rubber for war materials. The Polymer Corporation was established by Dow Chemical at the request of the Canadian government.

More oil was piped from Alberta to Sarnia, soon making oil refining and petrochemical production the mainstays of the city’s economy. The large salt beds found under Sarnia were a source of chlorine and another significant ingredient in the city’s successful economy.


Gold was discovered in 1858 in British Columbia which, at that time, was a preserve of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The company officially discouraged settlement because it interfered with the lucrative fur trade. Nevertheless, news of the discovery spread rapidly and soon tens of thousands of largely American prospectors arrived in the province. By 1860, however, gold was depleted in the region and many of the miners had either returned to the United States or dispersed further into the British Columbian wilderness in search of unstaked riches.

This diaspora resulted in other gold rushes on the Columbia River. In 1896, rich placer gold deposits were discovered in the Yukon. The discovery of gold in British Columbia proved to play a pivotal role in the unification of Canada. The quest for gold led to the building of first the famed Cariboo Road and later the railways, making the settlement of the West possible. Had it not been for these developments, the colony would likely have not been part of Canada and would have been claimed by the new American Republic to the south.


The Acton Mine in Quebec, which operated from 1859-1864, was once considered the most important in the world. In 1888, a large copper deposit was discovered at Britannia in British Columbia. From 1925 to 1930, the Britannia Mine was the largest copper producer in the British Empire. The mine, now a National Historic Site, produced 50 million tonnes of ore over its 70-year history.


From 1736 to 1883, the Forges Saint-Maurice produced iron from local bog iron ore to supply settlers and the military. The first iron works in Upper Canada, the Marmora Ironworks near Peterborough, Ontario, began production in 1822 with two charcoal-fired blast furnaces, a forge with two sets of water-powered hammers, and special hearths for the production of iron bar. Unfortunately, the operation could not hold its own for long against the more modern ironworks of Ontario and Nova Scotia, which employed coke-fired blast furnaces.

Between 1871 and 1873, the Canadian Titanic Company, which was controlled by English capital, built two blast furnaces for processing titaniferous iron ore at Saint-Urbain-de-Charlevoix, about 110 kilometres north of Quebec City. In 1901, the Dominion Iron and Steel Company built the first integrated steel works at Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Steel products were first manufactured in Canada in the 1880s. By the early 1900s, steelmaking centres had been established at Hamilton and Sault Sainte Marie in Ontario and at Sydney in Nova Scotia. Iron and steel production, which had grown gradually until World War II, accelerated rapidly as the post-war economic boom created a tremendous demand for steel.


Although the fireproof properties of asbestos were known to the Greeks and Romans, true industrial-scale use of the mineral took off only after large deposits were discovered in Quebec in 1874. Asbestos mining in Quebec, which commenced on a small scale in 1877, was the precursor, by many years, of asbestos mining in Russia and South Africa, which began in 1895 and 1900, respectively.

Phosphate rock

In the second half of the 19th century, Britain’s growing fertilizer industry depended on mines in Quebec and Ontario for its phosphate supplies. The first of these mines started in 1850 and was most active between 1878 and 1892. By 1895, output had declined owing to the discovery of significant deposits in Florida. Despite competition from south of the border, the Electric Reduction Company was founded at Buckingham, Quebec, in 1897. The company built one of the world’s earliest electric phosphorus plants to produce elemental phosphorus.


In 1883, a rich copper discovery was made accidentally near what is now Sudbury, Ontario, during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Soon, the Canadian Copper Company was established. In 1886, ore from the Sudbury area was sent to New Jersey for smelting by the Orford Copper and Sulfur Company. However, it was found that on smelting, the ore produced a pale yellow metal and not red copper, as expected.

On analysis, the product was found to be a nickel-copper alloy. Of the numerous attempts made to separate the nickel from the copper, one was especially promising. In 1891, a technique that later became known as the Orford process was developed. The process used sodium sulphate, a waste product of a nearby nitric acid plant, as a flux.

In 1902, the Canadian Copper Company and the Orford Copper Company merged to form the International Nickel Company, which later became known as INCO. The Orford process remained in use until 1948, when it was replaced by the controlled cooling process.

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