ball clay dates back to the Roman era, and over the years, the mining, processing and application of ball clay have undergone a considerable transformation
An extremely rare mineral found in limited places across the globe, the ball clay has today become an integral part of our daily lives. From the tiles in our houses to the plates we eat from to even heavy electrical equipment, ball clay is used to produce all of them. Technically, ball clays are fine-grained clays with high plasticity and strength. The use of ball clay dates back to the Roman era, and over the years, the mining, processing and application of ball clay have undergone a considerable transformation.
How Ball Clay got its name
At the time of its early discovery, ball clay was mined using specialized hand tools. Cubes of about 30cm were lumped together. Due to its ‘sticky’ nature, the cubes could also hold their shape. But they were rolled during transportation. This led to the corners coming off, resulting in ball-shaped clay lumps, hence the name “Ball Clay”. Because of its plastic nature, it is also called plastic clay in some parts of the world.
History of Ball Clay Production
The evolution of ball clay production has been aided by technology and the rising demand for higher-quality output in the late 19th century. Following is a short timeline of ball clay production:
Dating back to the 16th century, this mining method was adopted by farmers who discovered ball clay beneath their land. Initially, they used to dig with whatever tools they had, but later on, specialized hand tools were created to increase the mining efficiency. In this method, shallow trenches were dug to remove the overlaying material. Then claycutters were used to extract the clay into lumps. The tools had to be washed repeatedly, given the plastic nature of the clay.
Small Open Pits
As the shallow trenches grew, they gave way to small open pits. Miners soon realized that once the clay is found in a particular area, it is likely to be there even in the vicinity; hence, they kept increasing the pit’s size. The mining process remained the same. But one challenge that prevailed was flooding the pits. Hand-operated pumps were used to remove water in such cases. This method was used for mining ball clay till almost the 19th century.
The problem of rainwater flooding the mines was solved using timber. Wood was used to create a square frame for the mine with a size of 18 to 24 feet. Miners dig as deep as 50 feet and extract better ball clay. A wooden crane called ‘crab’ was erected on top to help lift the clay extract to the surface using an elm bucket. This process vastly increased the speed of clay mining.
Underground Shaft Mining
The square pit system started evolving and expanding, resulting in the early underground mining system. First, the claycutters would extract clay from the sides of the square pit and continue doing so, forming a bell-like shape underground. Then timber wood was again deployed in this excavation to support it. The space required for mining was only dug, and clay extracts were removed using buckets and ladders. By the 1870s, this method was the most prominent clay mining procedure.
The availability of high-rated pumps by the end of the century allowed miners to dig deeper. Eventually, underground mines of up to 200 feet became operations. By the 1930s, this system was modified to introduce underground mines that allowed the setup of a wagon system. Now clay extracts were transported to the surface in bigger wagons revolutionizing the mining volume.
Large-scale Opencast Mining
Underground mining was expensive, given how resource intensive and unsafe it was. However, by the 1970s, miners started to realize the potential of opencast mining. Technology evolution played a significant role in this transition as miners could accurately predict clay deposits and were equipped with machines that could dig speedily.
Once a particular area of clay deposit was discovered, quarries ranging in size from four to sixty meters were excavated. The upper surface was removed till the clay deposits were reached, and they were then extracted using trucks and other mediums of transport. This mining method is used even today and has resulted in massive ball clay production across the globe.
What are the applications of Ball Clay
One of the most primitive dated uses of ball clay was to make tobacco pipes. But with time, the world has realized the potential of ball clay’s physical and chemical properties, and its use has spread to various industries.
Ball clay is the most vital component in ceramic manufacturing, given its white-firing properties and high plasticity and strength. They are often combined with other materials to produce various ceramic products, including sanitaryware and tableware.
Ball clays can handle extremely high temperatures without significantly changing their composition. This is why they are widely used in various refractory products like kiln insulation and more.
Ball clay’s plasticity and good bonding properties make it an ideal candidate for tile production. Hence it is used in various combinations with talc, feldspar, silica and kaolin to manufacture wall and floor tiles.
Along with heat resistance, ball clays also possess excellent insulation properties. Hence they are widely used for producing electrical porcelain insulators and other such insulating components.
Apart from the major applications mentioned above, ball clays are used in various combinations for the construction industry, agriculture and horticulture. It is also used as a filler material for plastics, sealants, polymers and even fertilizers.
JLD Minerals Pioneering Ball Clay production
With an experience of over 50 years, JLD Minerals has been pioneering ball clay production in India. Its streamlined processes and widespread logistics network ensure a reliable and quality ball clay supply. Presently JLD Minerals are the biggest exporter of ball clay from India. Its mining infrastructure is spread over 25+ mining sites, two processing plants, three grinding units and two state-of-the-art R&D centres. Driven by the power of innovative technology and the passion of a young team, JLD Minerals has become one of the most reliable suppliers of ball clay in the world.