Mineral production from Alberta's oil sands would represent a sustainable resource for export to growing world markets. Heavy minerals are naturally occuring in the ground in the Athabasca region. However, the minerals contained in the tailings of oil sands mining operations are attracted to oil and become greatly concentrated during the oil sands operator's bitumen extraction process.
Heavy minerals are called "heavy" because they are heavier than quartz (specific gravity >2.67). Titanium minerals are used as feedstocks to the downstream titanium dioxide (TiO2) pigment industry which accounts for over 90% of the world's titanium consumption. Zircon is a valuable by-product of titanium mineral operations used primarily in the manufacturing of ceramics. Zircon remains in high demand, particularly from those regions with emerging economies.
World demand for zircon is about 1.3 million tonnes per annum with demand in excess of supply today. World demand of TiO2 is approximately 6.4 million tonnes per year.