When approaching Boron, California, from the west, the Rio Tinto Borax Mine’s processing plant on the edge of town appears like a mirage in the far distance (if your fever dreams typically contain post-apocalyptic factory works rising from plains of dust and creosote). But there’s nothing apocalyptic about the Borax Visitor Center, the friendly public face of one of the largest open-pit mining operations in the world.
Borates are minerals that contain boron, a low-abundance chemical element (atomic number 5 on the periodic table) produced over millions of years by cosmic ray spallation and supernovae. Yep, supernovae! While the cleanser Borax may be the most famous use of this awesome element-studded mineral, its most common modern application is something you’re probably looking at right now, as nearly 60 percent of borates mined today are used in computer screens.
Beyond screen glass, borate derivatives are used in cleansers, nutrients, pesticides, fertilizers, ceramic glazes, fiberglass additives, wood treatments, fire retardants, energy conductors, and, oh, it’s a prime ingredient in homemade slime! Almost half of all boron used worldwide is mined in the so-named tiny desert town of Boron just off California’s lonely Highway 58, boasting one of the richest deposits of boron-bearing ores on the planet. The only other deposits of significant size for industrial mining lie in Turkey.
What’s on tap at the Borax Visitor Center, other than everything you always wanted to know and more about borates? Proper homage is paid to the Borax brand’s 19th-century origins, when 20-mule teams truly did the heavy lifting (a life-size model of such a mule team rings the parking lot), though the center largely highlights the mine’s modern operations and the versatility of its star elemental attraction.
For those with unsatiated curiosity, an independent museum in town offers more in-depth history about the mine’s remarkable discovery and development. Situated just above the mine on a hill created by earth dug from below, the visitor center has a viewing platform sporting a stunning vista that appears at first glance to be a 1:200 scale model of the Grand Canyon. It is in truth the largest open-pit mine in California, 1.5 miles long.
Could this attraction possibly live up to its own claim to be “one of the best kept secrets of the Southern California desert?” It’s unexpectedly engrossing, to be sure, and the staff is terrifically friendly. A docent will likely greet you smiling at the door (perhaps with a sample piece of unpolished silicate glass), invite you to the theater for a 10-minute educational video, then entertain any questions you may have while pointing out highlights in the museum.
The enthusiasm for their product is infectious. There’s even a gift shop with tchotchkes and tees for the boron superfan, and free mineral samples abound in the parking lot, where you can choose your own keepsake hunks of the boron-bearing ores borate and kernite. And really, where else can you take home your very own souvenir products of supernovae?