Saturday, November 24, 2001

by: Jason Cole

The identification of a sheet of mica is never much of a problem even for an untrained eye. All forms of mica have perfect basal cleavage, unique hexagonal shaped crystals, and an unmistakable "snap" of cleavage flakes when they are bent together and then released. There are several varieties of mica, but the three primary varieties are, muscovite, a hydrated silicate of aluminum and potassium; phlogopite, which is a magnesium bearing mica; and biotite, a ferro-magnesium variety. The world's chief deposits of mica are found in India at Bihar and in the Nellore district of Madras. Over 50% of the mica used today comes from these two regions. Other major producers are Belgium, Brazil and China. In industry, all types of mica are used in two different ways. It can either be used in long sheets or it can be ground up into tiny bits, depending upon the specific use for the mica.

Muscovite mica Muscovite in economic quantities is confined to coarse-grained granite pegmatite dykes consisting largely of quartz, feldspar and mica. The dykes are of acidic igneous origin, and the minerals probably crystallized directly from magma.

When it comes to modern technology, sheet muscovite is an indispensable resource. It is used in almost every electronic device sold today as an insulator. Its high resistance to the passage of electricity and heat are so great that no substitute, artificial or natural, have proved to be economically suitable to replace it. No other mineral has better cleavage, flexibility or elasticity. It is possible to roll a sheet of muscovite less than 0.1mm thick into a cylinder 6mm thick and its elasticity would enable the sheet to flatten out again quite easily. Sheet mica is just as important to the electrical and electronic industries as copper wire and now ranks as one of the essential minerals of modern life.

Ground muscovite is used for entirely different products, than is sheet muscovite. Muscovite can be transparent to translucent in colour, but will always maintain its lustrous cleavage faces. Because of this property, muscovite is used in many different beauty products to make them sparkle. Products such as glitter, lip stick, and mascara all can contain small ground up pieces of muscovite mica. Other industrial products use mica as a non-stick agent in molds. Many rubber and plastic companies use it as a filler and as a dusting medium to prevent their products from adhering to the moulds in which they were shaped.

Phlogopite mica This type of mica can be easily recognized by it's distinct red-brown colour. The word phlogopite comes from the greek word phlogopos, which means "fire-like", in allusion to its red-brown colour. Phlogopite mica is more suitable than other types of mica for separating the segments of a commutator, because it wears more evenly and at about the same rate as the metal bars. Some of the highest grade phlogopite is found in Canada, in an area within 150 kilometres Ottawa, where large hexagonal crystals, none exceeding 30 centimetres in diameter, can be found. This resource is not being mined at present.

Phlogopite is associated with basic igneous rocks, especially pyroxenites, which can often be found as veins/fissures in metamorphosed limestones and gneisses. However, these deposits tend to form sporadically and therefore are difficult to mine economically.

Muscovite mica cannot be used in temperatures that exceed 550 degrees Celsius, whereas, phlogopite can be utilized at temperatures up to 1000 degrees Celsius. Muscovite is still used more commonly in insulators because the price of phlogopite is quite high in comparison to other micas. Still for special circumstances where heat and/or wear might be a problem, phlogopite is always used.

Lepidolite mica Lepidolite is an uncommon mica and has only in the past decade became available on the world markets in large quantities. It is an ore of lithium and typically forms in granitic masses that contain high amounts of lithium. This mineral can be found in such places as Brazil, Russia and the west coast of the United States.

Lithium as an element is often obtained from lepidolite mica to be used in such applications as lasers, T.V. and radio tubes, fireworks, as well as in medications for treating bipolar disorders. Its primary use is in glass making. When added to the melted glass, lepidolite acts as an opacifier in opalescent and white glass that is widely used for table tops and jars. It also enhances the strength of the glass. Lepidolite is not normally mined because of its properties as a mica, rather it is mined for its lithium content. However, lepidolite has an attractive violet colour that does make it valuable as an ornamental stone or as a mineral specimen.

Biotite mica Biotite mica can be easily identified by its dark brown to black colour that is a result of the high ferro-magnesium content of the mineral. It is a common rock forming mineral that is found in granite, syenite and other igneous rocks. It is also found in metamorphic rocks such as gneisses and schists. Most economical deposits are found in granitic pegmatite dykes.

Biotite is rarely used in sheet form, and good crystals are extremely uncommon, as it is generally laced with impurities forming from the iron-bearing minerals. It is almost always used in the powdered form as a coating or other filler material in the roofing, building or other industries. Moderately large deposits of biotite can be found near Bancroft, Ontario with sheets reaching 1 metre in diameter.

Uses of mica

  • Alloys (lithium from Lepidolite)
  • Aluminum production
  • Artificial snow
  • Asphalt roofing felts and shingles (protective coating and weather proofing)
  • Batteries (lithium from lepidolite)
  • Beauty products
  • Casting (mica strainer used in producing bronze, brass and aluminum castings)
  • Ceiling tiles
  • Christmas ornaments (as a flocking materials and to provide glittering effects)
  • Commutators
  • Concrete block fillers, refractory bricks, gypsum board (reinforcing structures, fire resistance, sound absorption, corrosion protection)
  • Condenser plates (mica is covered with silver to make capacitors. Used to produce the energy to make the camera flash work)
  • Explosives (as an absorbant)
  • Foundry works, enamels, mastics and adhesives (improves physical properties, anti-sag, reduces cracking)
  • Glass (lithium from lepidolite)
  • Guided missiles
  • Heating elements (electrical insulation. The wire is wrapped around the mica in toasters, irons, kettles and hair driers)
  • Insulators (wires, toasters, irons, etc.)
  • Lasers (lithium from lepidolite)
  • Liquid level indicators (mica is unaffected by high temperature and pressure. It is used for checking boiler for liquid level and pressure of steam)
  • Lubricants Medication - psychiatric disorders (lithium from lepidolite)
  • Microwave windows
  • Oil well drilling (drilling mud additive to overcome loss of circulation) Ornamental stone
  • Paint, textured (improves physical properties and durability, adhesion and water proofing)
  • Pearlescent pigments (provides lustre in paints, lipstick and other materials)
  • Plaster (improves acoustical properties)
  • Plastics (improves thermal and dielectric properties, impact strength and heat resistance)
  • Rocket propellants (lithium from lepidolite)
  • Roofing shingles Rubber (prevents adhesion of rubber compound to the mold during vulcanisation)
  • Soldering irons
  • Spark plugs
  • Telephones
  • Television tubes (mica spacers to hold tube elements in position and insulated from one another and lithium from lepidolite)
  • Transistors (heat and electric insulator)
  • Wall-paper
  • Welding electrodes, cables and wires (protective coatings, and improves dielectric properties, electrical and mechanical strength)
  • Welding rods (lithium from lepidolite)
  • Well-drilling muds
  • Windows (kerosene lamps, and furnaces)

Mica WEB Resources

Inderchand Rajgarhia & Sons (P) Ltd Mica company in India. Excellent information about uses of mica.

Mica - crystal chemistry

A large sheet of mica extracted from the Purdey Mica Mines, near Mattawa, Ontario. The man at the left is Joseph Norrie Jr., the other man holding the sheet is William Hansen, and the man standing off to the right is J.P. Norrie (whom I take to be Joseph Sr.). J.P. Norrie was VP of Purdy Mica Mines Ltd. and Joseph Jr. was mine manager. The picture dates from a site visit in 1942. Mica from this sheet or a sheet from the same crystal is in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, specimen M19976.

Photo and information credit: The Northern Miner. Jim Whyte, Editor