Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Borax, Boron, Borates, and a HUGE pit

Today we left Mojave at 8:00 and headed out to the U.S. Borax Boron mine, about a 40 minute drive. After the lithium evaporation pools and the wells used at Searle's Valley, this mine was very different. It consisted of an enormous pit, 1 mile by 1/2 mile in area, 500 feet in depth, that has been mined for the last 100 years and yields 40% of the world's supply of borates, which are used in countless products including soaps, glass, neutralizers and ceramics.

Needless to say this was an enormous operation, and it took a while to comprehend the scope of it all. We started in the visitor center, where we walked around their exhibits on the history, general procedure, and market of the mine, and then we watched a short safety training video. When the video ended, we grabbed our complementary hard hats and very attractive safety glasses and excitedly boarded the tour bus.
We were accompanied by two of the mine's geoengineers, who explained various features of the mine as we passed them, and answered our questions about their plans for the future and the geology of the area. Luckily, they happened to be blasting a section of rock at the side of the pit while we were touring, so the geoengineers led us up to a good vantage point and we got to watch from a safe distance as a ripple of explosives freed up tons of minerals. Below you can see us all trying to catch the blast on video.

After that thrilling and unexpected tangent, we went down into the pit and got to do some of our own prospecting, picking through piles of sparkling minerals such as ulexite, kernite and borax. It was amazing to see such unique-looking gems just lying in piles all over the ground, and our group spent about an hour selecting the most interesting cuts.

It sounds strange, but I had trouble keeping myself from taking more than 3 of each type, as each sample was more beautiful than the last. We did have to employ some self control due to airlines' baggage weight limits, but in the end everyone was very satisfied with what they took away. Below is one of the better chunks of kernite I brought back.
After everyone had had their fill of fancy rocks, we drove back up to the visitors center (passing the processing plant on the way, which sadly we could not take pictures of but which was nevertheless very cool) and ate lunch in the parking lot, enjoying the warm sun and a light desert breeze. Then it was back in the vans and off to Temecula.
We had some interesting transportation struggles along the way, as keeping a series of 4 large white vans together gets more difficult as traffic increases (Temecula is much more populated than our previous destinations). However, after a few U-turns and confused cell phone conversations, we reached a restaurant called Wahoo, where we ate dinner (burritos and tacos). Back at the hotel a bunch of us took advantage of the hotel's jacuzzi and swapped stories of the day.
It was a very exciting day and I will definitely sleep well tonight. Tomorrow is supposed to be one of the dirtier days, so I'm putting out my boots, jeans and a disposable t-shirt before I go to bed.
Thanks for reading!

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