What is Silica?
Silica is the name given to a group of minerals composed of silicon and oxygen, the two most abundant elements in the earth’s crust. Silica is found commonly in the crystalline state and rarely in an amorphous state. It is composed of one atom of silicon and two atoms of oxygen resulting in the chemical formula SiO2.
The first industrial uses of crystalline silica were probably related to metallurgical and glass making activities in three to five thousand years BC. It has continued to support human progress throughout history, being a key raw material in the industrial development of the world especially in the glass, foundry and ceramics industries. Silica contributes to today’s information technology revolution being used in the plastics of computer mouses and providing the raw material for silicon chips.
Silica exists in nine different crystalline forms or polymorphs with the three main forms being quartz, which is by far the most common, tridymite and cristobalite. It also occurs in a number of cryptocrystalline forms. Fibrous forms have the general name chalcedony and include semi-precious stone versions such as agate, onyx and carnelian. Granular varieties include jasper and flint. There are also anhydrous forms – diatomite and opal. Quartz is the second most common mineral in the earth’s crust. It is found in all three of the earths rock types – igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary. It is particularly prevalent in sedimentary rocks since it is extremely resistant to physical and chemical breakdown by the weathering process. Since it is so abundant, quartz is present in nearly all mining operations. It is present in the host rock, in the ore being mined, as well as in the soil and surface materials above the bedrock, which are called the overburden.
Most of the products sold for industrial use are termed silica sand. The word “sand” denotes a material whose grain size distribution falls within the range 0.06-2.00 millimetres. The silica in the sand will normally be in the crystalline form of quartz. For industrial use, pure deposits of silica capable of yielding products of at least 95% SiO2 are required. Often much higher purity values are needed. Silica sand may be produced from sandstones, quartzite and loosely cemented or unconsolidated sand deposits. High grade silica is normally found in unconsolidated deposits below thin layers of overburden. It is also found as “veins” of quartz within other rocks and these veins can be many metres thick. On occasions, extremely high purity quartz in lump form is required and this is produced from quartzite rock. Silica is usually exploited by quarrying and it is rare for it to be extracted by underground mining.
The three major forms of crystalline silica -quartz, tridymite and cristobalite- are stable at different temperatures and have subdivisions. For instance, geologists distinguish between alpha and beta quartz. When low temperature alpha quartz is heated at atmospheric pressure it changes to beta quartz at 573oC. At 870oC tridymite is formed and cristobalite is formed at 1470oC. The melting point of silica is 1610oC, which is higher than iron, copper and aluminium, and is one reason why it is used to produce moulds and cores for the production of metal castings. The crystalline structure of quartz is based on four oxygen atoms linked together to form a three-dimensional shape called a tetrahedron with one silicon atom at its centre. Myriads of these tetrahedrons are joined together by sharing one another’s corner oxygen atoms to form a quartz crystal. Quartz is usually colourless or white but is frequently coloured by impurities, such as iron, and may then be any colour. Quartz may be transparent to translucent, hence its use in glassmaking, and have a vitreous lustre. Quartz is a hard mineral owing to the strength of the bonds between the atoms and it will scratch glass. It is also relatively inert and does not react with dilute acid. These are prized qualities in various industrial uses. Depending on how the silica deposit was formed, quartz grains may be sharp and angular, sub-angular, sub-rounded or rounded. Foundry and filtration applications require sub-rounded or rounded grains for best performance.
Silica deposits are normally exploited by quarrying and the material extracted may undergo considerable processing before sale. The objectives of processing are to clean the quartz grains and increase the percentage of silica present, to produce the optimum size distribution of product depending upon end use and to reduce the amount of impurities, especially iron and chromium, which colour glass.
Cleaning the quartz grains and increasing silica content is achieved by washing to remove clay minerals and scrubbing by attrition between particles. Production of the optimum size distribution is achieved by screening to remove unwanted coarse particles and classification in an upward current of water to remove unwanted fine material. Quartz grains are often iron stained and the staining may be removed or reduced by chemical reaction involving sulphuric acid at different temperatures. Impurities present as separate mineral particles may be removed by various processes including gravity separation, froth flotation and magnetic separation. For the highest purity, for electronics applications, extra cleaning with aggressive acids such as hydrofluoric acid combined with thermal shock may be necessary. After processing, the sand may be dried and some applications require it to be ground in ball mills to produce a very fine material, called silica flour. Also, quartz may be converted to cristobalite in a rotary kiln at high temperature, with the assistance of a catalyst. Some specialist applications require the quartz to be melted in electric arc furnaces followed by cooling and grinding to produce fused silica.
CRYSTALLINE SILICA REGISTRY NUMBERS IN A SERIES OF COUNTRIES
|CEPA (DSL/NDSL)(Canada)||yes (DSL)||yes (DSL)||no|
* = CAS n° for Silica** listed*** not listed