Last week, Tanya and Jay, while driving through the Mojave Desert, spotted a road sign announcing the turnoff for the Borax Visitor Center, near lovely Boron, California. “Wow!”, said Jay, “This is terrific! Let’s see what this is all about!”
At the risk of not being boring, how many of you remember the dispensers of Boraxo hand powder in the lavatories in grade school? And does anyone remember Richfield gasoline with Boron, marketed in the 1960s as a cleaner fuel helping unleash your engine’s power? And does anyone remember the longest running radio and television program, “Death Valley Days” (1952-1970) brought to you by 20 Mule Team Borax, and featuring such notable hosts as Dale Robertson, Robert Taylor, and of course, Ronald Reagan (1965-66)? The program also helped launch the careers of actors like Clint Eastwood, Leonard Nimoy and George Takei. Such is Jay’s trivia-filled brain that he remembered a bunch of this, or at least enough to get Tanya to agree to drive down a dusty desert road and visit the home of Borax, located not far from Edwards Air Force Base (remember Chuck Yeagar, the Right Stuff, etc.)?
We were not disappointed. What we found was the Rio Tinto borax mine, a huge open-pit mining operation, employing 800 people, that produces almost 50% of the world’s supply of borates. “Big deal”, you might think. What the heck are borates anyway and why is there this huge open wound in the earth with trucks moving this stuff around?
Well, dear reader, if you remember from your high school chemistry class, boron is the #5 element in the periodic table, just behind hydrogen, helium, lithium and beryllium and just edging out carbon in the #6 position. So, a pretty darn important element. And, as we learned from our tour of the visitor center, borates are used in all sorts of everyday products…Tide, Wisk, Windex, Play-Doh and Miracle-Gro, to name a few, plus hundreds of industrial uses.
The 20 mule teams that were used in the early years of transporting borax out of the now played out Death Valley mine from 1883 to 1889 have been replaced by these monster mining trucks that take the ore down (or up) from the pit to the nearby processing plant. It’s a pretty impressive operation, involving drilling, blasting, and shoveling, all stuff that a lot of guys enjoy, and then hauling the ore out to be crushed, dissolved and further broken down for use. Three million tons of ore come out of this mine every year.
But this fun can’t last forever. The mine will eventually play out by about 2050, so if you happen to be driving through the Mojave some afternoon, stop by before it’s too late.