May 2010

Re-imagining a natural resource

Whitemud Resources is positioned for green growth with a new metakaolin process

By M. Eisner

Dried, unprocessed ore is sent off to be separated.

A component of fine art, false teeth, tea cups and toilet bowls, kaolin clay has been used in small doses for centuries, thanks to its brilliance and durability. Now, a Calgary-based company expects that these qualities, matched with innovative processing, will open up a new market for the resource.

Sometimes a fresh, new approach to an old game is all it takes to come out a winner. That was the strategy behind Whitemud Resources’ plan to invest in 12,000 acres of mineral leases for one of the largest kaolin deposits in North America.

Kaolin is a naturally occurring clay that is most commonly used in paper, ceramics and porcelain, among other things, but is expensive to process into the top-quality product needed for these applications. Whitemud Resources has patented a cost-efficient method of turning kaolin into metakaolin, a substance that, when added to concrete, strengthens it and makes it more durable. With so much kaolin at their disposal, and a low-cost method of manufacturing it into metakaolin, two of the main roadblocks to the widespread use of metakaolin in concrete – availability and cost – were removed.

“One of our founders was aware of this kaolin deposit in southern Saskatchewan,” explains Kelly Babichuk, the company’s president and COO. “He knew that other companies had looked at this property primarily for paper. He got together with a couple of guys, and me, and we took a completely different look at the product. We chose to focus entirely on the cement and concrete industry.”

Dry versus wet

When heated, kaolin transforms into metakaolin, which can be used as a supplementary cementing material to replace up to 20 per cent of Portland cement in a concrete mix. Aside from strengthening the concrete, the addition of metakaolin has a number of benefits, including specific environmental advantages. “The process of manufacturing cement emits approximately one tonne of carbon dioxide per tonne of cement manufactured,” explains Babichuk. “The common signature of manufacturing our metakaolin is about 55 per cent lower than cement.”

Whitemud Resources has patented a dry process to produce WhitemudMK, an off-white, high-quality, high-reactivity metakaolin.“We don’t use any water,” says Babichuk. “The [other] companies marketing metakaolin to concrete makers are primarily focused on the paper industry and other markets, and their process is designed to produce a paper-grade metakaolin,” explains Babichuk. “They spend quite a bit of money to do that. They will typically use a lot of water in a wet process; they will use magnets to pull iron out and chemicals to bleach the clay, and then heat it to metakaolin.” Whitemud Resources’ process produces cement-grade metakaolin, which is not “pure” enough to be used in paper. “Cement-grade metakaolin doesn’t have all the impurities  taken out of it, but in concrete, it doesn’t matter,” says Babichuk.“If there is a little bit of sand, it doesn’t matter. This allows us to sell our product at a third of the price offered by  other suppliers.”

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