Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Photo Essay: Searles Valley Minerals Plant Tour, Trona

Since Trona is essentially a company town for the Searles Valley Minerals operation, which harvests minerals from Searles Dry Lake and processes them at three local plants, no visit to Trona would be complete without a tour of one of the plants.



For the Centennial celebration this weekend, the Trona plant opened its doors to curious locals and wacko visitors like myself, having driven nearly four hours from LA pretty much just for this.



The plant is usually only open once a year, during the annual gem & mineral show in the fall, when you get to actually go out onto the dry lake and dig through the mud, salt, and brine.



Usually people are looking for pretty crystals – especially the pink ones, colored by a specific kind of bacteria – to collect and display.



But the dry lake is full of minerals – mostly salt and boron – that can be processed into industrial and consumer products...



...like such compounds as borates (boric acid and borax) and sodium carbonate (soda ash) and sulfate – major ingredients in detergents and other cleaning products.



Like many refineries, much of what they do is powered by steam...



...a process which requires heating water just enough so as not to burn it.



(Yes, you can burn water.)



Searles Lake contains one of the world’s richest deposits of naturally occurring minerals...



...with a brine that's 10x saltier than seawater.



At the plant, raw minerals are trucked in...



...processed...



...evaporated and dried out...



...and bleached...



...and then carted out by rail via the Searles-owned Trona Railway Company...



...a short-line railroad that brings freight from the plant to its various destinations.



When demand is low (like now, because no recent natural disasters have broken a lot of glass, which is made from boron), the plant's products aren't shipped out...



...and so they must be stored...



...most cheaply in parked rail cars.



At one time, the plant employed over 2000 workers...



...but now their staff clocks in at under 1000, with automation having taken over some of the manual functions.



Still, there are employees on call 24/7, and they do get called if something happens in the middle of the night.



Searles Valley Minerals still feels like a local business – the town of Trona having formed as a company town around its operations – but its current iteration is relatively recent...



...having only taken on its current name in 2004...



...and actually having its corporate headquarters in Overland Park, KS. Way before that, it started as the American Trona Corporation and changed names and ownership many times throughout the 20th century.

Although Searles Valley Minerals has already mined and produced a significant volume of products from Searles Dry Lake, it is so mineral-rich and geologically abundant that they predict they have at least another 100 years' supply (at least at the current rate of production) before running out.

I may decide to go back, roll up my sleeves, and get myself dirty and start digging in the fall, just so I can go out onto that lake...

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Argus Cemetery, Upon the Trona Centennial
Photo Essay: 100 Years of Trona
Photo Essay: Visiting the Largest Borax Mine in the World
Photo Essay: Amargosa Opera House & Hotel, Death Valley Junction
Avoiding Regret: The Salton Sea