The discovery of some unusually high-quality silica south of Golden could create approximately 150 direct full-time jobs, and another 500 spin-off jobs, should preliminary plans eventually move forward.
The discovery was made by Hi-Test Sand, an Edmonton-based company that was originally looking at a site south of Golden as a potential frac sand operation in 2013. A year into the process, and upon the discovery of the high-quality silica, the company changed its focus.
“That enabled the business model to change,” said John Carlson, the company’s vice-president.
Silicon metal is used in the production of aluminum, solar panels and computer chips. The resources from the Golden plant would primarily go towards the production of solar panels.
“The silicon metal is the most appealing to us because of the end use of it going into solar panels,” Carlson said.
The entire process is carbon-positive, Carlson says, even when including emissions from mining trucks on the site itself.
Shifting to a green project was another important factor in Hi-Test’s decision to explore the possibility of a silica plant instead of a frak sand operation.
“It was a very easy sell for us, not because of the economic benefit of it, but because of the idea of switching sides from being an input into the oil and gas business to being something that has more longevity in what we really think is going to be the way of the future for us,” he said.
The potential mine site is just north of Horse Creek, and the company would set up a 60 acre plant near Highway 95.
Currently, North America consumes 400,000 tonnes of silicon metal a year but produces just 200,000 ton. The site in Golden could produce about 50,000 tons per year and the current market for silicon metal is $2,700 (USD) per ton.
The entire project is worth $300 million (USD).
Carlson was clear that the project in Golden was far from being a sure-thing, and that Hi-Test is continuing to weigh its options, with another potential site in Washington being under consideration.
However, a few factors are in Golden’s favour, including the weak Canadian Dollar and the fact that Hi-Test would prefer to keep its operations north of the border.
“All the owners of Hi-Test Sand are Canadian and it will be an economic decision, but if the two are equal we would absolutely rather build this in Canada,” Carlson said.
A decision on whether Hi-Test will pursue the project should be made in the next two to six months.