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Energy symposium highlights natural resource wonders in Utah

The Dragon Mine where halloysite is mined near Eureka, Utah.
The Dragon Mine where halloysite is mined near Eureka, Utah.
Applied Minerals

SALT LAKE CITY — Soft and brilliantly pure white, this small mineral sample is the purest in the world, with a long list of uses and an even longer array of potential — and it's found only in Utah at commercial-scale level of mining.

There's a reason the town Eureka got its name in the Tintic Mining District, with the earth yielding a treasure of precious metals and other natural resources over a century of man's reaching deep down.

Andre Zeitoun has hope he's found his modern-day eureka with the Dragon Mine, where the company's $10 million in resource development led to an operating mine and the 2014 completion of a processing plant.

Zeitoun's Applied Minerals was among the many natural resource and technology breakthroughs showcased Wednesday as part of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's Energy and Environment Symposium.

Zeitoun, who is Applied Minerals' president and chief executive officer, bought the idled Dragon Mine on 267 acres in 2009. The area includes an underground clay resource called halloysite and ultra- pure iron oxide.

Utah is home to the world's only commercial-scale resource of halloysite, with estimates there are more than 2 million tons in place.

Halloysite is important to anyone on the Wasatch Front who wants cleaner air, better lithium battery technology (think energy storage) and more ecologically, friendlier ways to carry out environmental remediation or applying paint and varnishes.

The Dragon Mine operated from 1949 until 1976. During that time, it was the world's leading producer of the mineral considered to be one of the most effective catalysts for refining higher sulfur content crude oil. It later became too expensive to mine in it, and there was a mine fire as well, idling the site.

But technological advances in the field of composites and refining offered new promise.

The crystals in the mineral component act as a scrubber in crude oil, amping octane levels while decreasing sulfur and other hydrocarbons that lead to increased emissions.

The halloysite contains nanotubes, hollow tubular crystals, which Zeitoun says encapsulate a given material and have a "smoothing effect" on the delivery of it in medicine, perfumes or fungicides.

In 1995, the U.S. Navy recognized the value of such a time-released element, developing a patent at its research lab for a marine paint used to prevent accumulation of barnacles.

At present, Zeitoun said that a six-year period produced more than 1,690 peer-reviewed studies probing the application and properties of halloysite-derived nanotubes — something he hopes will help his company match up with market demand.

Utah's already encouraged.

Last month, a research team from the University of Utah received a $191,700 Utah Science Technology and Research grant to probe use of the trademarked Dragonite clay for use in solid-state lithium batteries.

Using solid electrolytes, rather than liquid or gel-based ones, will ultimately make lithium batteries safer, Zeitoun said, pointing to instances of some mobile phone devices catching on fire.

Laura Nelson, Herbert's energy adviser and director of the Office of Energy Development, said Applied Minerals' efforts keep the state on the forefront of innovation and once again showcase Utah's diverse natural resources.

"I appreciate their interest in Utah and (Zeitoun) is bringing an international perspective," she said noting, global attention and research on halloysite. "It's also good for rural Utah, with a resource that provides jobs."