NEWBERRY SPRINGS After 54 years of turning hectorite into a product used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and paint, the Elementis Specialties plant in Newberry Springs is nearly finished with an expansion that will increase production while being more energy efficient.

The plant's new spray dryer system should be online by May 1, said plant manager Michael McGaff. The new system, which took about four years to put in place, will replace an older spray dryer system. Getting the new system online has cost the company about $6 million.

McGaff declined to say exactly how much the plant's production would increase as a result of the upgrade, but said the amount of material the new system produces is expected to double. The older system had been in place since the plant opened, he said.

"We'll be able to operate at additional capacity," McGaff said of the new system. "It's state of the art."

By pumping a mixture of hectorite clay and water into a large funnel, drying it and using a dust collector to catch the particles, the new system will produce Bentone EW, Bentone, LT and Benaqua 4000. These materials are used to make cosmetics, cleaners and polishes, waxes and primers.

Hectorite is a clay mineral that Elementis Specialties has been mining for since the late 1950s. According to McGaff, even though hectorite is found in other parts of the world, the largest, purest deposit is just east of Newberry Springs at the Hector Mine.

The material is trucked from the mine to the plant where machines grind it up and remove limestone and other impurities. It is then mixed with water before being pumped to the spray dryer system.

To prepare the new system before bringing it online, members of the plant's maintenance department have been working on the instrumentation and control systems of the plant. Mike Blaszak, who has been working for Elementis Specialties, said the new system is much better than the older system.

"This has all been reengineered and everything," he said. "By all intents and purposes (the new system) looks like it's going to be easier. Things are easier to access and everything."

Once the material has been processed at the Newberry Springs plant it is transported by train to the Elementis Specialties plant in St. Louis and Livingston, Scotland.

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(760) 256-4123 or jcejnar@desertdispatch.com