So You’ve Never Heard of Wollastonite?
But you can find it in matches, linoleum, automobiles, paint, and even computer chips
by Don Cunnion
WHEN A MAN NAMED KOERT BURNHAM uncovered deposits of the mineral wollastonite in the Adirondacks nearly 50 years ago, it was no earth-shaking event. Nobody got up and cheered. The existence of wollastonite, a form of calcium metasilicate named for William Hyde Wollastone, an English chemist, had been known for 150 years, maybe more. But few people had given it a second thought. It appeared to offer nothing new to industry, to accomplish nothing new.
Today, however, industries in the United States and abroad are using thousands of tons of wollastonite annually to make everything from match heads to automobiles. Its ability to replace asbestos, a cancer-causing substance, in many products has put it in even greater demand.
Burnham was mining garnet at a family site on Fox Hill near Willsboro, Essex County, in 1937 when he stopped to inspect small piles of earth at the edge of holes dug by resident foxes for whom the hill was named. Kicking at the debris, he uncovered what appeared to be bits of decomposed wollastonite.
Burnham had become familiar with the mineral the year before when a Princeton geologist, Dr. A.E. Budington, had uncovered traces while doing a survey of the area. The inquisitive Adirondacker, 33 years old at the time, decided to take a closer look around the spot on Fox Hill. He soon uncovered a seam of wollastonite several feet thick. Continued exploration revealed the presence of the substance in commerical quantities.
Titillated by his discovery, Burnham set out to learn more about the mineral’s properties. The more he learned the more he became convinced that wollastonite was a much overlooked and underrated mineral for industrial use. He decided to change that.
Before launching his odyssey, however, he needed to resolve an association with his father, John Burnham, who was busy building homes and cottages for clients in New York and nearby states. “Most of the structures were pre-cut log cabins,” Burnham recalls. “Their popularity provided income for the Burnhams and jobs for North Country loggers and carpenters during the depression years of the 1930s.” Although depending heavily on his son as a crew handler, the elder Burnham understood the young man’s urgent desire to exploit his findings, and told him, “Take all the time you need.”
That was all the encouragement the younger Burnham needed. He got his facts together, put on a business suit, and set out to knock on factory doors. He visited large and small factories alike, even such blue-chip companies as Coming Glass, Westinghouse, and Du Pont. He told them about wollastonite and what he thought it could do for them. He asked for candid opinions and got them.
“Before leaving home,” he recalls, I made up a rating sheet. Negative opinions would be given a value of two, positive opinions a value of only one. Obviously, I was making any outcome in my favor as tough as possible. But when I got back home and tallied up the score, the positive side outweighed the negative side by a large enough margin to convince me that wollastonite had solid commercial possibilities.”
TESTS BEING MADE by various people at Burnham’s urging revealed that wollastonite possessed satisfactory properties for use in such products as ceramics, plastics, paints, and even as a filler for linoleum. The Foote Mineral Company of Philadelphia, Burnham’s first customer, found the mineral could be used as a coating for welding rods. General Electric began using it as a flux for a special form of automatic welding. To supply these early customers, Burnham had the ore mined by hand-drilling and blasting, broken up in small pieces with sledge hammers, and hand-packed in burlap bags for shipping.
By now Burnham had learned through his research that Dr. Budington, the Princeton geologist, hadn’t been the first to discover the presence of wollastonite in the Willsboro area. It had been spotted back in 1810 by Dr. William Meade and again in 1921 by Lardner Vanuxem. Nobody paid any attention. Burnham also found that J.T. Thorndyke had opened a mine in California in 1933 to supply wollastonite ore for the making of mineral wool. The project failed within a year.
But knowledge of the failure of the California venture didn’t discourage Burnham. If anything, it served to spur him on. His efforts were just beginning to bear fruit, however, when they were interrupted by World War II.
Turned down for military service, Burnham went to work in a Florida shipyard. Despite long hours at the shipyard, he found time to send a report on his wollastonite findings to Dr. John Broughton, a New York State geologist. Dr. Broughton liked what he saw and prepared a paper on the subject, presenting it to a meeting of the American Institute of Mining and Metalurgical Engineers in February 1944.
The paper later was published in a technical journal, where it was seen by officials of a Niagara Falls firm, Titanium Alloy Manufacturing Company. They quickly became interested in the possible use of wollastonite in work they were doing on the Manhattan Project, the government’s top-secret nuclear bomb project. To help out, Burnham was asked to join the firm after the U.S. Maritime Service agreed he was needed more at Niagara Falls than at the shipyard.
As soon as Burnham joined Titanium Alloy he was sent hurrying back to the Adirondacks to blast out 1,000 tons of woolastonite ore and ship it posthaste to Niagara Falls. The mineral was used in the making of electric insulators for the atomic project.
When the war ended, Burnham returned to his home in the hamlet of Essex, located a handful of miles south of the mine in Willsboro. He was ready to take up where he had left off—convinced more than ever of the future of wollastonite. One of his first acts was to form Northern Minerals Incorporated with his sister Rose. The purpose of the company was to acquire mineral rights wherever traces of wollastonite could be found in nearby areas. Rights already owned by Burnham at the original workings were transferred to the company.
“Rose took charge of this part of the operation and did a marvelous job searching titles and buying mineral rights,” Burnham says. “We felt we needed a package of mineral rights in the Essex and Warren county area.”
Rose, now deceased, has been succeeded in the partnership by Burnham’s daughter, Mary Oliver. Mary, too, keeps the company books; most transactions deal with royalty payments.
In a second move after returning home, Burnham obtained a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to pursue further wollastonite research. One part of the money went to Alfred University for studies into expanded use of the mineral in ceramic making. Another part was allocated to Horizons Incorporated of Cleveland, whose president and research director had served with Burnham at Titanium Alloy. “Horizons did chemical research that resulted in several valuable patents,” Burnham recalls.
With the remainder of the grant Burnham set about establishing a pilot plant for refining wollastonite ore. He located the plant in a building on the main street of tiny Essex, which nestles along the shore of Lake Champlain. Local residents were not quite sure what Burnham was trying to do, but they did know he was stirring up a lot of dust and making a lot of noise.
After many months of trial and error, Burnham finally managed to develop what he calls an economical and practical method of refining wollastonite ore to almost 100 percent purity. He began turning out small quantities of the refined mineral.
One of the first customers was White Pigments Incorporated, a Vermont firm that included the product in its line of ingredients sold to paint manufacturers. When the firm needed a fresh supply, Burnham would blast ore out of the original pit and haul it seven miles down the road to the Essex plant for crushing and refining.
It wasn’t long, however, before the Essex residents decided the center of their tiny hamlet was no place for a mineral refinery. “They threatened to have me and the plant removed from the place as a health hazard,” Burnham recalls with a wry smile. “The dust may have been a nuisance, but it was not injurious. From the beginning, I insisted on regular chest X-rays of myself and helpers. No problems ever showed up.”
But the Essex inhabitants couldn’t have cared less that wollastonite was harmless. They wanted it gone. Upset by the attitude of his old friends and neighbors and pressed for money, in 1949 Burnham sold processing rights to a newly-organized firm called Willsboro Mining Company, headed by two residents of that community—Payson Hatch and John Kiehl. They built a small refining plant near the railroad station in Willsboro and leased from Burnham the rights to mine his deposit.
As owner of extensive mineral rights, Burnham naturally enough continued to be interested in the future of wollastonite. He helped the new company get started and promoted sales. The venture failed to prosper, however, and Burnham became involved in the search for someone else to take over.
“Several companies showed interest, including Cabot Corporation of Boston,” Burnham relates. “Cabot at the time was the world’s largest supplier of carbon black, used as a rubber reinforcing agent in such things as auto tires and as a coloring agent in ink and paint. Cabot was seeking new enterprises and appointed a man named Raymond Ladoo to take up the search. I made a point of cultivating this man and he finally became enthusiastic enough to recommend Cabot buy out Willsboro Mining. “Any concerns Cabot may have had about possible health hazards from wollastonite dust were satisfied when I displayed our collection of chest X-rays and some up-to-date chemists’ reports.”
Cabot signed a long-term lease with Northern Minerals for mining rights and took over operation of the Willsboro station plant in 1951. Cabot did so well that in three years’ time it opened a high-capacity, fully automated refining operation within a mile of the mining site. At long last, the commercial production of wollastonite was off and running.
Cabot continued operations for the next 15 years, expanding output of refined wollastonite to some 27,000 tons annually. The mine originally was worked open-pit style, but underground methods became necessary in 1960 as the mineral-bearing beds dipped sharply downward.
That same year, two additional large deposits were discovered a few miles away near Lewis—the result of drilling operations carried out by the Adirondack Development Corporation, formed by a group of area businessmen: Harry Titenberg and George Heustis of Willsboro and William LaFleur of Keeseville. Burnham had anticipated the find and controlled the mineral rights.
In 1969, Cabot sold out to a company named Interpace, which conducted operations for the next 10 years. During that time it purchased the sites of the new ore discoveries. The operation changed hands again in 1979, being taken over by the current operator, NYCO, a division of Processed Minerals Incorporated, which in turn is a wholly owned subsidiary of Canadian Pacific Enterprises Incoporated. In 1982, NYCO expanded capacity to 80,000 tons a year at the Willsboro processing plant and opened one of the two new mines near Lewis.
COMMERCIAL PRODUCTION OF WOLLASTONITE has sprung up in several foreign countries, but the United States remains far and away the number-one producer, accounting for four-fifths of the known world output of 100,000 tons annually. Nearly all United States output for both domestic use and export comes from the deposits in the Adirondacks.
It’s taken a while, but wollastonite finally has won an established place in industry. “The future of wollastonite is exciting and promises many challenges,” says Loren W. Choate, vice president and general manager of NYCO, owner and operator of the wollastonite mining and processing facilities at Willsboro and Lewis. New applications for wollastonite are being developed in markets that didn’t exist a few years ago. The age of computers has produced requirements for printed electronic circuit boards, silicon chips, and main frames that use a new generation of wollastonite. NYCO also has developed technology that chemically modifies the surface of the wollastonite crystal. The new surface chemically bonds to organic resins to form moisture resistant, high-strength alloys of mineral and plastics.
Koert Burnham says Choate deserves great credit for the outstanding job he has done in developing new uses for wollastonite and bringing the mineral to its presently wide range of acceptance. Choate, a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Mines, came to Willsboro in 1959 when open-pit mining was abandoned in favor of underground tunnels in order to follow ore deposits. Due to increasing costs of underground mining, however, all wollastonite ore now comes from open-pit operations at nearby Lewis. Processing continues at Willsboro.
“Core drilling has indicated a supply of about six million tons of ore at Lewis,” Choate says. “At projected market demand the ore there should sustain production until the year 2010.”
Before opening the Lewis deposit, NYCO was obliged to work out an arrangement with the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), even though the land was classified as industrial, Choate says. “It was the responsibility of the APA to assure the least disturbance of the land and to protect the people living in the area from excessive noise and dust and to preserve the purity of streams adjacent to the mine property. NYCO and the APA developed a harmonious working relationship and were able to come up with what we regard as a fair and equitable mining arrangement.”
The Lewis open pit is a model of modern mining conforming to environmental concerns, according to Choate. “Trees and underbrush were left undisturbed around the pit area to deaden the sounds of drilling and trucking. Blasting pit. Various grasses were planted on the overburden pile to hold it in place. A reclamation plan has been assured by financial bonding that eventually will return the property to a natural appearance. Prior to stripping, a study conducted by the state forester identified the flora mix so that replanting will restore the same mix.”
One snag remains, however; the ore body at Lewis extends in depth under land owned by the state. This land, Choate points out, is zoned as “primitive land use,” making it impossible to disturb the surface in order to explore accurately the underground extension of the ore. “Preliminary discussions with APA officials for making exploratory drillings have met with negative responses so far,” Choate says. “Currently there is no accommodation in APA regulations to allow mining on state land. Perhaps in future years a compromise can be reached.”
Because wollastonite has gained recognition as a substitute for asbestos in several applications, the mineral has come under scrutiny by government regulatory agencies for possible toxicity, Choate notes. “But three complete examinations of all wollastonite workers in the past 15 years by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the New York State Department of Health have concluded that the dust is nonhazardous,” Choate says. “It has been rated only as a nuisance dust, the lowest category.”
WHAT KOERT BURNHAM HAD as a vision has become more than just a dream. “Wollastonite has won a firm position as a mineral of the future,” says Choate. Koert Burnham has seen his cherished dream come true. He no longer is involved in the research, production, or marketing of the mineral, but he does retain more than a fatherly interest. After all, practically all U.S. output comes from Adirondack deposits controlled by his Northern Minerals Company.
Burnham also gains great satisfaction from the knowledge his efforts have created jobs in an area notorious for underemployment, thus following in the footsteps of his father. At the same time, like his father, who became a world-renowned leader in the early conservation movement, Burnham maintains a dedicated interest in what he calls applied conservation.
“Jobs and conservation are not incompatible in places like the Adirondacks,” he explains. “Conservation means the wise use of our natural resources. It means planned management for the well-being of all. Man and nature can be partners working together. My father believed that, and so do I.”
As he insists on pointing out, Burnham had the help of many, including a few foxes, in bringing wollastonite to the attention of the industrial world and winning acceptance for it. But without his foresight, persuasion, and persistence, wollastonite might still be just an ignored name in a textbook.