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Analysis

World’s Largest Fluorspar Mine has Far-Reaching Impact

Wed, 10/21/2015 - 09:49

The name Mexichem is far more associated with the chemical and petrochemical industries than with mining. With annual sales in excess of US$5.2 billion in 2013, Mexichem is a known brand in industries as diverse as construction, infrastructure, transportation, sanitation, and healthcare. Furthermore, with 102 production plants and eight R&D labs around the world, its two mines may seem like a side business. This would be selling them short as Mexichem’s mining sites are the foundation for its raw material supply.

The core of Mexichem’s business is to develop advanced technologies in a wide range of industries from the two raw materials it extracts, namely salt and fluorite. Although the company itself is not a core part of Mexico’s mining landscape, its business model shows a diversity in the country’s geological resources that is not often explored. With silver, gold, copper, and iron dominating reports, Mexichem relies on a fluorite and a salt mine to impact dozens of industries through thousands of products. The raw product, fluorspar, extracted from the Las Cuevas mine in San Luis Potosi can be used directly to manufacture hydrofluoric acid, while also being a raw material for the making of glass, steel, cement, and ceramics. Hydrofluoric acid itself then goes on to be used in a wide range of industrial applications, ranging from refrigerant gases and stainless steel to being used in the uranium enrichment process necessary to produce nuclear fuel. Other products derived from fluorspar, such as fluorocarbons, are felt in the fluoride present in toothpaste, lithium salt in batteries, or in the refrigerants present in air conditioners.

The Las Cuevas mine, located just to the southeast of San Luis Potosi, is the largest fluorite mine in the world, reaching a high grade of fluorite ranging between 73-95%. The mine was certainly a glorious find for the needs of Mexichem, since it is riddled with orebodies, running from 300-800m in length, with thicknesses of up to 500m. The company has so far outlined nine orebodies, named A through H and Myke. The first four of these have been mined, with the G orebody currently the main contributor of fluorspar to Mexichem operations. In recent years, the pace of Mexichem’s growth has made it take measures to shore up its base and ensure that the pace of mining accelerates. This modernization process has made Las Cuevas one of most productive mines in Mexico, with double digit leaps in production annually. It marks a big change in a mine that has been operated since the 1950s but was late to find its productive footing. Unlike dedicated mining companies that may run one or more projects looking for maximum extraction and profitability, Mexichem runs its mine with different aims in mind. Mexichem’s vertically integrated fluorite supply chain sees it able to handle the processing of all the 350,000 tonnes of metspar and 280,000 tonnes of acidspar produced annually by Las Cuevas. On top of that, the company also sits on other high-purity fluorspar deposits in Coahuila.