Thursday, March 28, 2013

Tincal (Tinkle) and Poo

On Tuesday, we visited the Rio Tinto borax mine - a huge open pit operation several hundred feet deep.  Most importantly, Borax is used in soap and glass.  Apparently, the roads into the mine get pretty slippery when wet, although this isn't a huge problem in the desert.  After receiving special safety instructions, we headed down into the mine, only to hear that they would soon be doing an explosion to blast some of the rock away using ammonium nitrite.  So we trekked back up to a better vantage point to get a good view.  Here is a before picture:

An after picture:

And some amused spectators:

Then we headed back into the mine to the bottom of the pit to view the raw materials.  There, we found three types of minerals: ulexite, kernite and tincal (pronounced like tinkle).  People had a lot of fun asking questions like "What color is tincal?" and "How much tincal do you produce?". Ulexite is interesting because it can be referred to as TV rock.  The mineral received this nickname because a pure piece of it will generate a double image.  Most of the borax-enriched minerals were white and some even sparkled in the sunlight.  The only rocks that deviated from this description were a few rare pieces that contained arsenic and were root beer-colored.
Here's an up close picture of kernite:

When the borax mine first opened in the late 1800s, 20 mule teams pulled loads of the material to the customers.  The mine had a cool representation of this in its museum parking lot.

On Thursday, we visited two wastewater treatment facilities in the Las Vegas and Henderson area.  The first we visited was mostly outdoors while the second was contained underground.  These trips were particularly interesting to me because I spent the last two summers working in my township's engineering department.  There, I sent out notifications to local facilities about the differences between sanitary and sewer drains in order to prevent pollution, so it was neat to see the actual process of sanitary sewage cleaning.  The smell wasn't great but the intricate and creative engineering made up for it.  After removing large solids, both sites used microbes to biologically clean much of the water.  The indoor site had these huge strings to clean the water that reminded me of baleen whales while at the other location it was interesting to see the algae that grew in the water, and the different colors throughout the plant.  See below.

Surprisingly, the wastewater comes into the plant as 99% water and 1% other materials, but its important to clean the water so fishing, swimming, and the environment can be protected at Lake Mead.  The 1% includes wrappers, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and of course, poo.

And last but not least, here are a few of my favorite pictures of the American southwest from along our journey.

At the Oceanview mine in Pala, CA:

At the Las Vegas wastewater treatment plant:

And at the Simplot Silica mine in Overton, NV:


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