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Mining and Metallurgy

Galt CollieryAlberta is renowned for its energy resources, especially its oil. Alberta also has a long history of producing coal; coal mining was the original economic base for several large Alberta communities, including Lethbridge (which, earlier, was called Coalbanks), Medicine Hat and Drumheller. According to Natural Resources Canada, as of 2002, Alberta was the largest producer of coal in Canada, producing 31 million tonnes (46 percent of all Canadian production), worth $387 million.

C level at a coal mine in AlbertaWhen Alberta became a province in 1905, coal-mining methods involved hand loading and horse-driven carts. Early patents, such as the wheel flange, patented in 1909, an improvement to the wheels-on-coal carts, illustrate the technological state at the time. Some patents, however, clearly had an eye on the future, such as the car propelling mechanism, patented by Henry Gibeau of Frank.

The Brilliant Coal Mine in DrumhellerNon-petrochemical mining patents are surprisingly few and far between in the opening decades of the century, given that coal was what kept prairie houses warm and trains on the move. With the 1920s, however, came the mechanization of the mining industry, and more Alberta mining inventions. Frederick Whitmarsh of Edmonton, for example, invented a magnetic ore separator in 1922, and Jay Smith of Vulcan invented a coal-cutting machine in 1931.

Transporting solids through 3,500 feet of pipelineSince the explosion of the oil and gas industry, coal as a viable export has fluctuated quite widely. Through the 1950s, it looked like the industry might die out, until markets in Japan opened in the 1960s and revitalized the declining coal industry in Alberta. One of the critical issues has always been the cost of transporting coal as compared to oil and gas. Much research has gone into the transportation of coal through pipelines, and the Alberta Research Council (ARC) researcher Dr. Norbert Berkotwitz spent years researching the viability of this option.

Other metals, minerals and substances found and mined in Alberta include salt, sand and gravel. Additionally, Sherritt mines (later becoming Sherritt Gordon) established a nickel refinery in Fort Saskatchewan in 1952. Their research in metallurgical processes produced a wealth of patents such as the process for the separation of cobalt from nickel in the early 1980s. Sherritt Gordon, in fact, has the greatest number of patents of any individual or company in Alberta. Parts of Sherritt’s research facilities have since become part of the Dynatec Corporation, a metallurgical research and development company established in 1997 and built upon Sherritt’s research into the zinc pressure leaching process.

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