Mining and Metallurgy
Alberta 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.
When 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.
Non-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.
Since 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 Sherritts
research facilities have since become part of the Dynatec Corporation, a
metallurgical research and development company established in 1997 and
built upon Sherritts research into the zinc pressure leaching process.
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