The economy of the Northwest Territories is linked to mining. Base and precious metals formed, until recently, the mainstay of the NWT mining industry. Exploration began at the turn of the 20th century, with stakes being claimed in the Yellowknife area, where gold would be mined for more than 50 year and along the eastern shores of Great Bear Lake, where uranium, radium and silver would be mined.
Since that time, lead, zinc, copper, bismuth, cobalt, and tungsten have all been mined in the NWT.
However, in recent years the focus has shifted to diamonds. There are currently three operating diamond mines in the NWT.
Diamonds were discovered in the Slave Geologic Province in 1991 by Charles Fipke and Stewart Blusson. Today there are three diamond mines in operation and exploration is ongoing.
The combined output of all three NWT mines represents an estimated 15 per cent of the world’s diamonds.
Canada is the third largest diamond producing country, by value, in the world.
In 2003 the NWT produced 11.2 million carats in rough diamonds, worth $1.24 billion. By the time these rough stones cut, polished and sold as jewellery, they are worth $8.76 billion.
Diamond mines operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Most shifts are 12 hours (day or night) and workers are on a rotation of 2 weeks in and 2 weeks out.
Diamonds are generally found in a geologic formation known as a kimberlite pipes.
Test results on northern diamonds show they were formed between 2.5 and 3.3 billion years ago!
Open pit mines are used when the shape and size of the kimberlite pipe close to the earth’s surface. Underground mines are used when the kimberlite deposit has the diamonds spread out in a large area deep inside the earth.
Transportation of heavy materials to and from the diamond mines occurs over the Lupin Winter Ice Road, 568 km from Tibbit Lake to Contwoyto Lake, Nunavut (Lupin Mine site), open an average of 67 days/year. 16 hours for haul trucks to travel from Yellowknife to Lac De Gras diamonds area.
Speed limit loaded is 30 kmh. Speed limit empty is 60 kmh.
Each producing diamond mine recovers more than $1 million in diamonds per day.
The Government of Canada will receive an estimated $5.2 billion in royalties over the life of the Ekati, Diavik and Snap Lake diamond mines.
There are four diamond cutting/polishing facilities in the NWT – Arslanian, Sirius, Canada Dene Diamonds and Laurentian.
Canadian polished diamonds are branded with a laser etched logo or symbol, serial number and a short message.
The NWT has a long history of gold mining. Gold was first discovered in 1898.
The first mine to send gold south was Burwash, in 1935, although it only produced 87 ounces of gold and closed in 1937.
1935 marked the beginning of the NWT gold rush. Both Con Mine and Giant Mine were staked in that year. Gold would be mined around Yellowknife until the late 1990s. Companies are now exploring the tundra for gold deposits.
Gold (Au) is a bright, shiny, yellow metal, notable for its high density (19.3 times the weight of an equal volume of water) and valued for its extreme ductility, strong resistance to corrosion, lustrous beauty and scarcity.
Gold is mostly used in jewelry, coins and ornamentation, but is also used in electronics, dentistry, and the aerospace industry.
Pine Point, on the south shores of Great Slave Lake, was the site of the largest lead/zinc deposit in Canada. Mining took place from 1965 until 1987. Tamarlane Ventures plans to re-open the Pine Point operation in 2008/09.
Prairie Creek is continuing its work near Fort Simpson.
Zinc (Zn) is a bluish-white metal of low to intermediate hardness that melts at 419°C and is estimated to comprise about 0.013% of the earth's crust. Zinc is an essential element for human health; over 200 enzymes in the body require zinc for proper functioning.
The greatest use for zinc is as a coating for iron and steel products to make them resistant to rust and corrosion.
Lead (Pb) is a silver-grey metal commonly found with zinc and copper sulphides as the mineral galena. Properties such as a low melting point (327.4°C), high density and malleability, corrosion resistance and a good ability to attenuate gamma radiation and sound vibration have led to a wide variety of uses.
The single largest use for lead is in the manufacture of lead-acid batteries. Lead is still used as a protective sheathing for underground and underwater cables. Certain lead compounds are used as paint pigments.
Copper (Cu) is a malleable, ductile, reddish metal that melts at 1083°C. Copper has both a high electric and thermal conductivity.
Some of the most common and widespread applications are in electrical transmissions, water pipes, castings and heat exchangers.
Worldwide over two thirds of copper is used in wire and cable.
Copper is the best non-precious metal conductor of electricity.
Bismuth is mainly a by-product of lead ore processing. It has a metallic lustre and is silver-white with an iridescent tarnish.
Among the heavy metals, it is the heaviest and the only non-toxic.
Bismuth has been used in solders, a variety of other alloys, metallurgical additives, medications, and in atomic research.
Bismuth has been found near the Snare Lake hydro-electric complex, northwest of Yellowknife, in a deposit also containing gold and cobalt.
The majority of bismuth is consumed in bismuth alloys, and in pharmaceuticals and chemicals. The remainder is used in ceramics, paints, catalysts, and a variety of minor applications.
Cobalt (Co) is a brittle, hard, greyish-white magnetic metal that melts at 1495°C and that closely resembles iron and nickel.
Small quantities of cobalt are also recovered from copper-nickel sulphide ores.
Cobalt is used in super alloys for jet engines, chemicals (paint driers, catalysts, magnetic coatings, pigments, re-chargeable batteries), magnets, and cemented carbides for cutting tools.
Tungsten (W), also called Heavy Stone, is a silver-grey metallic element with the highest melting point of any metal (3410° C).
Tungsten has a high density, high strength at elevated temperatures and extreme hardness. Its first important use, during the mid-1800s, was in the manufacture of high-speed steel.
Drilling and studies continue at the Mactung deposit in the Mackenzie Mountains.
Tungsten is mixed with carbon to make a very strong, very resistant material called tungsten carbide. Tungsten carbide is used to make cutting tools and wear-resistant tools for metalworking, drilling for oil and gas, mining, and construction.
Because it has such a very high melting point and low vapour pressure, tungsten is used in high temperature situations. For instance, the filaments in light bulbs are made of tungsten. It is used in other applications in electronics as well.
When added to steel, tungsten increases its strength. It is alloyed (mixed with) other metals to make "super alloys" which have special physical properties of high strength and heat resistance.
Some of the applications for such super alloys are in turbine engines for jet aircraft and energy generation. Other alloys bearing tungsten are used for armaments, heat sinks, radiation shielding, weights and counterweights, wear-resistant parts and coatings.
Alpine Gems is currently exploring a large deposit of pink tourmaline.
Emerald and green beryl crystals were recently discovered north of Tungsten, in the Nahanni River region.
Several occurrences of iolite are known in eastern NWT. The list of NWT gemstones continues to grow.