You are on page 1of 6

Dicaperl Perlite Mine, near Socorro, Socorro County, NM

Gabriel Graf 1, Sam Pierce 1, Pedram Rostami 2

1. New Mexico Tech, Earth and Environmental Science Dept, 801 Leroy Pl.,
Socorro, NM 87801
2. New Mexico Tech, Mineral Engineering Dept, 801 Leroy Pl., Socorro, NM 87801

Introduction
Commercial perlite is a water-rich (2-5 wt.% H2O), volcanic glass of normal rock
density that expands or “pops” when heated in a furnace (Chamberlin and Barker, 1996).
One of the largest producers of perlite in New Mexico is the Dicaperl Perlite Mine,
located 6 km southwest of the town of Socorro in central New Mexico. The mine is
currently producing 150,000 tons of raw ore per year. This ore is then shipped to a plant
where it is expanded (popped). The value of the expanded perlite is ten times that of the
raw ore, but is expensive to ship and large amounts of natural gas are needed to expand
the ore. Perlite has a variety of uses, including ceiling tiles, horticulture, filtration in food
industry, and acoustic walls and tiles (Kogel et al, 2006).

Geology
This perlite deposit is a small dome of rhyolitic volcanic glass that has been
hydrated over time to produce perlite. The alteration to perlite occurred at low-
temperatures, as was noted by (Chamberlin and Barker, 1996) because of the observation
of concentric fractures, which requires a roughly spherical hydration geometry. The
deposit formed from the fast, low temperature hydration of a body of obsidian. 40Ar/39Ar
geochronology of sanadine crystals produces an age of 7.85 ± 0.04 Ma (Chamberlin and
Barker, 1996). This age date represents the youngest of a series of lava flows and domes
that where then covered by sediments. The small dome was uplifted along a Quaternary
fault zone and sufficiently exhumed by erosion to allow open-pit mining of this now
uniformly hydrated microvesicular glass (Chamberlin and Barker, 1996). The most
interesting feature about this deposit is the lack of the common crystalline core. The
reason for the lack of the core is a debated issue, but has been suggested that the
termination of the lava dome at its conduit allowed the dome to super cool with out the

1
formation of a crystalline core. The deposit has a maximum extent of 840 m and is
exposed over a topographical interval of 135 m (Chamberlin and Barker, 1996).

Mining Methods
This mine employs the method of open-pit mining (figure 1), where perlite is
mined by scraping the deposit with a bulldozer and grader type machine. It is then
dumped into a grizzly, which passes the material through a jaw crusher and then onto a
conveyor belt (Figure 2). The conveyer belt takes the ore to the mill (figure 3), where the
ore is milled and sorted into 20 various sizes for consumers. The ore is dried to remove
the moisture and lessen the weight. The mine is currently expanding the open pit
operations by stripping the overburden from the west pit wall. This expansion will lead
to another 30-40 years of mine life, with many more years possible from future
expansions.

Shipping
The raw ore is shipped by rail and secondarily truck. The perlite ore is shipped in
100 ton sealed railcars (Figure 4) to keep it from becoming wet and heavy. On average,
forty-to-fifty of the 100-ton sealed cars are shipped per week. The perlite is usually
shipped while unexpanded to cut down on shipping costs. Since perlite expands 40-50
times in size, it becomes uneconomical to ship from Socorro as expanded perlite. The
material is shipped to a processing plant in Oklahoma where it is “popped” at a
temperature between 1100-1500 °C. The final product is then shipped to consumers
around the United States.

Environmental Issues
The main environmental issue at the mine is fugitive dust. The mine currently has
a permit that specifies the allowance of dust emissions. However, the health issues
associated with airborne silica are minor due to the low levels of crystalline silica in the
ore. Silicosis and other silica related issues are caused by crystalline silica damaging the
human lungs. The residents of Socorro are not prone to these harmful health issues
because of the low amounts of crystalline silica in the deposit. The only harmful health

2
risk may be to workers who work at the mine for decades, and are exposed to the material
everyday. The environmental dust issues are controlled by laborers and application of
dihydrogen monoxide in sufficient quantities (?).

Conclusions
The Dicaperl perlite mine produces the largest amount of raw perlite in the state
on New Mexico. The rhyolitic lava dome formed 7.85 ± 0.04 Ma and has since been
exhumed by faulting. This exhumation led to the mining of this uniformly hydrated glass
near Socorro. This ore is then shipped to a processing plant in Oklahoma, where the raw
ore is heated to produce the perlite product that consumers’ desire. The health risks to the
residents of Socorro are extremely limited because of the low levels of crystalline silica
that is present in the deposit. This mine will be located at the outskirts of the town of
Socorro for decades to come, with no harm to any residents. Socorro’s world renowned
perlite will also be enjoyed by consumers for decades.

Figure 1. Open-pit that is currently mined at the Decaperl Perlite Mine, Socorro, NM
(Photograph by Gabriel Graf)

3
Figure 2. Grizzly, jaw-crusher and conveyer belt that sends raw ore to the mill for
processing (Photograph by Gabriel Graf)

4
Figure 3. Mill were raw ore is crushed and sorted in 20 various sizes (Photograph by
Gabriel Graf)

Figure 4. 100-ton railroad car in which the raw ore is shipped to a processing plant
(photograph by Gabriel Graf)

5
References

Chamberlin, R.N. and Barker, J.M. (1996); Genetic Aspects of Commercial Perlite
Deposits in New Mexico, New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources,
Bulletin 154, Geology of Industrial Minerals 31st Forum

Chamberlin, R.N. and Barker, J.M. (2007); Industrial Minerals Class Field Trip, March
23, 2007; Dicaperl Perlite Mine, Socorro, Socorro County, NM

Kogel, J.E., Trivedi, N.C., Barker, J.M. and Krukowski, S.T., (2006): Industrial minerals
& rocks; 7th edition, Society of Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration, Inc. (SME),
Littleton, Colorado

6