Ceramic Industry

Investing in Ceramics: When Opportunity Knocks

January 1, 2002
CMS Energy is capitalizing on its existing ore supply to enter the industrial minerals market.

CMS Energy's caldesite ore is mined in Brazil.
CMS Energy never expected to get into the industrial minerals business. Formed in the mid-1980s as a holding company, one of CMS’ businesses is Consumers Energy, a regulated utility that provides gas and electric service to Michigan. The company also owns several other businesses, including an energy marketing firm and a major Midwest pipeline company. Energy has always been the primary focus—until now.

CMS purchases uranium for its nuclear power plants. As part of its search for uranium, the company recently discovered an ore that provides both uranium and zirconium. Seeing the opportunity to expand its business, CMS rapidly began exploring ways to tap into this new market.

CMS technicians ensure the materials' high quality.

Discovering New Possibilities

The caldasite ore CMS uses, which is found only in Brazil, is a low-grade uranium ore. “This particular ore is very rich in zirconia—both in zircon and baddelyite form,” explains R.W. Philips Jr., manager, business development and marketing. “It soon became obvious that this was a business opportunity for us. If we could remove the uranium, which is what we were originally looking for, we could also have a very pure zirconia product.”

The company turned to a uranium mill that operates in the Southwest U.S. CMS was able to use the mill’s facility after some modifications, and the two companies agreed on a toll processing arrangement. The mill is now able to extract not only the uranium and zirconia CMS was expecting, but silica as well. “We had to remove the silica for our zirconia processing operation,” says Philips. “And it turned out to be a very nice, high-purity colloidal silica.”

Additionally, CMS discovered that it didn’t have to be completely reliant on the caldasite ore. “Right now, all of the ore that we’re using is from Brazil,” says Philips. “However, the process is amenable to the use of zircon, if that particular source of supply is not available to us. It’s a very robust and patented process that we’re using—if we can crack the uranium-rich caldasite, we can very easily switch our process to any of the common zirconia-bearing minerals.”

Product Offerings

CMS plans to begin production and have material available for sale during the first quarter of 2002. Three basic products will be available—high-purity monoclinic zirconia, high-purity colloidal silica, and uranium oxide.

“The principal product is the high-purity monoclinic zirconia,” says Philips. “That product is being offered in essentially one basic purity level, but we have the ability to modify the particle size to meet our customers’ needs.”

Zirconia will be available in oxide or hydrate form. Applications include high-purity feedstock in value added applications. Zirconium oxides can also be used as stand-alone products in electronic, catalyst, pigment and crystal growing processes.

The company plans to offer silica in colloidal and gel forms for use as desiccants, binders and catalysts. Silica products can also be used as high-purity feedstock for texturing, polishing, flocculation, paper and coating applications. Uranium oxide will also be available “for anyone who’s interested,” says Philips. “We will be producing uranium oxide with the original intent, of course, of using it as part of our fuel supply for our nuclear power plants.” But the company does intend to offer this material for sale as well.

Philips estimates that the company’s first-year production capacity for finished zirconia will range between 7-9 thousand tons of material. Colloidal silica production should reach 2500 tons, and the company expects to produce roughly 100,000 pounds of uranium oxide the first year.

Looking ahead, Philips expects that, for finished zirconia product, “the total mill throughput will be producing between 15-18 thousand tons a year, if we run on an annual basis full-time.” Total annual silica production is anticipated to be about 5000 tons.

A Bright Future

The facility features direct rail access to the Gulf and West Coasts, minimizing transportation costs and allowing the company to ship overseas easily. “One of our greatest benefits is that we’re a U.S. supplier,” explains Philips. “We have a ready supply of material right here in the United States. And, of course, we do have the ability, because of our economies of scale, to offer some very attractive pricing.”

The future is bright indeed for this innovative energy company. “We’re planning to be open for business in the first quarter of 2002, and we’re looking forward to establishing long-term relationships with customers,” says Philips.

For More Information

For more information on CMS Energy’s industrial minerals products, contact R.W. Philips at 2021 Hoyt St., Muskegon Heights, MI 49444; (231) 798-6410, fax (231) 798-6411; or e-mail rwphilips@cmsenergy.com.