Friday, October 14, 2016

Cleaning Up After Miners

Then the dwarfs said, “If you will keep our house for us, and cook, and wash, and make the beds, and sew and knit, and keep everything tidy and clean, you may stay with us, and you shall lack nothing….In the morning the dwarfs went to the mountain to dig for gold; in the evening they came home, and their supper had to be ready for them.”
Grimms’ Fairy Tales
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Cast out by her wicked step-mother and nowhere to go Snow White struck what must have seemed a good bargain  -  cleaning-up after seven diminutive gold miners in exchange for room and board.  Society in general has had a similar economic pact with the mining industry, overlooking environmental degradation in exchange for the minerals and metals that win wars, harness energy and build bastions of safety.  However, as time has passed, the value proposition has changed.  Higher populations, increased pressure on limited water and power resources, and unprecedented scale in mining operations, have amplified dangers to society. 
Like a dirty boot on Snow White’s freshly scrubbed floor, damage to the environment and danger to human health has left society calling for stricter curbs on mining activity.  Snow White, to her peril, kept letting strangers into the living room, perhaps looking for solace in companionship.  Society may get some help from a new technology  -  geopolymerizaton.

Geopolymers are inorganic materials that form long non-crystalline networks.  An example of a naturally-occurring geopolymer is the glasslike volcanic rock called obsidian.  Geopolymers can be synthesized using a process not surprisingly called geopolymerization, i.e. a chemical reaction that integrates minerals into a bonded network.  Minerals rich in silicon such as fly ash and slag and materials rich in aluminum such as clay are required for the process.  The chemical reaction is between a solid aluminosilicate oxide and an alkali metal silicate solution.
Scientists at universities as well as within the mining industry have been working with geopolymerization to mitigate some of the worst pollutants from mining as well as downstream processing facilities.  Mine smelters produce significant slag that is also stored at on-site repositories.  Likewise, the combustion of coal at power stations produces vast amounts of fly ash composed of fine ashes.  In the U.S. coal processors must fit chimneys with particle filtration devices to capture fly ash and most is then deposited at similar on-site repositories.  These fly ash and slag heaps frequently produce toxic leachate as rainwater filters through.  The contamination of the water sources and soil due to industrial solid waste leachate is has been linked to anemia, stomach cancer and heamochromatosis.    
The inorganic part of fly ash is 40% to 60% silica and 20% to 30% alumina.  By weight, slag is 30% to 40% silica and 7% to 16% alumina.  Both have have been identified as strong candidates for geopolymerization.  The conversion of fly ash in particular has been targeted for conversion into something more useful  -  geopolymer cement  -  that can replace conventional Portland cement.   The conversion of potential toxic waste into something usable is a win-win for all players from the mine to the process to society as a whole.  Even Snow White would approve!
In the most recent report available, Research and Markets indicated 12,000 tons of geopolymer concrete had been poured globally in the year 2012.  It is a modest start for the geopolymer ‘industry.’  The Geopolymer Institute likes to consider it an industry of its own accord and hosts an annual ‘camp’ to promote geopolymer applications such as ceramics, heat-resistant composites, structural materials as well as geopolymer concrete.
Investors looking for a pure play in geopolymers will be disappointed.  There are some well known industrial companies that have dipped the corporate toes in this emerging industry.  Top of the list is Dow Chemical, Inc. (DOW:  NYSE), which makes a geopolymer coating that can be used as a substitute polystyrene foam.  The construction chemicals division of BASF (BAS:  F or BASFY:  OTC/QB)  is also in the market with geopolymer grout and binder for industrial use.  The oil field services company Schlemberger (SLB:  F or SLB:  NYSE) produces geopolymer sealing materials and EverCRETE, a geopolymer cement for carbon dioxide storage. 
There are several private companies involved as well.  A few of the most interesting applications:
·        Wagners in Australia produces geopolymer concrete marketed as ‘Earth Friendly.’ 
·        Wagners has a competitor in Australia in Zeobond, which produces E-Crete pre-mixed and pre-cast geopolymer concrete. 
·        Universal Enterprise in India is producing geopolymer brick made from fly ash.
·        Steel slag in India is being turned into pavement blocks by Jajil Enterprises. 
·        Fire resistant aluminum and geopolymer composite panels have been developed by NuCore Australia.

Investors with a particular interest in environmentally astute alternatives would do well to pay attention to geopolymer science.  Many have been conditioned to respond to ‘bio this’ and ‘bio that.’  However, it is clear that sustainability and environmental soundness can come from non-organic sources as well. 

Neither the author of the Small Cap Strategist web log, Crystal Equity Research nor its affiliates have a beneficial interest in the companies mentioned herein.


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