technological innovations

Technological Advances and Material Innovations in the Stone Industry Post-Silica Ban

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After the ban on engineered stone in Australia, the stone industry, a vital sector within trade jobs in Australia, made several technological innovations to address the health risks associated with high-silica materials. Companies have introduced safer alternatives and developed new technologies to minimize exposure to harmful silica dust. Additionally, the industry has shifted towards natural stone and low-silica composite materials. 

This blog will look into the key developments and technological innovations made to adapt to the ban and move forward.

Key Takeaways

  • Sintered stone and silica-free engineered stone provide safer alternatives with lower silica content.

  • Enhanced dust control technologies reduce silica dust exposure, including wet cutting and advanced PPE.

  • Comprehensive training programs are critical for safe handling and compliance with new safety standards.

  • The shift towards innovative materials and practices fosters a more sustainable and health-conscious stone industry.

Sintered Stone

Sintered Stone

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Companies like Neolith have developed sintered stone products that mimic natural stone but contain significantly lower silica levels (between 1% and 9%). Sintered stone is created using natural raw materials and subjected to high pressures and temperatures. This results in a durable, low-silica product suitable for various applications such as countertops and flooring.

As sintered stone becomes a popular choice due to its lower silica content, the demand for skilled professionals to work with this material is increasing, highlighting opportunities for stone mason jobs in Australia.

Durability

Sintered stone is known for its exceptional durability. Created under high pressure and temperatures, it is highly resistant to scratches, stains, heat, and UV rays. Compared to natural stone types like granite and marble, sintered stone often offers superior resistance to daily wear and tear. While engineered stone (like quartz) is also durable, sintered stone surpasses heat and UV resistance, making it suitable for outdoor applications.

Price

Sintered stone is generally more expensive than natural stones such as granite and marble. The cost is often higher due to the advanced manufacturing processes involved. However, it can be more cost-effective in the long run due to its durability and low maintenance requirements. Engineered stone, such as quartz, tends to be less expensive than sintered stone but can vary widely depending on brand and quality.

Availability

Sintered stone’s availability is more limited than that of common natural stones and engineered stone types. Granite and marble are widely available and have a long history of use, leading to an extensive supply chain. Engineered stones like quartz are also widely available due to their popularity and versatility. Sintered stone, a newer product in the market, may not be as readily available, and choices might be limited to certain manufacturers like Neolith.

Type of StoneDurabilityPriceAvailabilityAmount of SilicaUsability Today
Sintered StoneHighly durable; resistant to scratches, stains, heat, UVHighLimited, expanding with demandLow (1% – 9%)15% (increasing)
GraniteHighly durable; resistant to heat and scratchesModerate to highWidely availableLow to moderate30% (commonly used)
MarbleModerate durability; prone to scratches and stainingHighWidely availableLow to moderate20% (luxury use)
Quartz (Engineered)Highly durable; resistant to scratches and stainsModerate to highWidely availableHigh (up to 90%)25% (popular)
Other EngineeredVaries; generally durable but depends on compositionVaries; moderate to highVaries; depends on typeHigh (varies by type)10% (varies)

Sintered stone was already in use before Australia’s ban on engineered stone. However, its adoption has accelerated in response to the ban due to its lower silica content and the associated health benefits.

Silica-Free Engineered Stone

Silica-Free Engineered Stone

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Some manufacturers are working on developing silica-free engineered stone. For instance, Neolith aims to introduce new color options utterly free of silica by 2024, ensuring safer products without compromising on aesthetic and functional qualities​.

Silica-free engineered stone is produced using alternative raw materials and innovative manufacturing techniques to eliminate or significantly reduce the presence of crystalline silica. Here’s an overview of the typical process:

1st. Raw Material Selection

Manufacturers select alternative minerals and aggregates that do not contain crystalline silica, such as feldspar, recycled glass, and ceramics. Organic or inorganic binders like resins or polymers hold these materials together, ensuring a silica-free composition.

2nd. Mixing and Blending

The chosen raw materials and binders are carefully measured and mixed to create a uniform blend. This mixture is designed to achieve specific physical properties and aesthetics, such as color, texture, and durability.

3rd. Molding and Shaping

The blended mixture is poured into molds to form slabs or other shapes, allowing for the creation of countertops, tiles, and custom designs. Compaction under high pressure ensures a dense, solid structure, enhancing the material’smaterial’s strength and durability.

4th. Curing and Hardening

The molded slabs undergo a curing process to harden the material, which may involve heat, UV light, or chemical reactions, depending on the binder used. Vibration and compression may also be incorporated to further consolidate the material and improve its structural integrity.

5th. Surface Finishing

After curing, the slabs are cooled and undergo surface finishing processes such as grinding, polishing, and sealing to achieve the desired quality and appearance. Advanced polishing techniques create a smooth, glossy surface or a matte finish, depending on preferences.

6th. Quality Control and Testing

Finished slabs are subjected to rigorous quality control checks to ensure they meet industry standards for strength, durability, and aesthetic consistency. Physical properties like hardness, scratch resistance, and stain resistance are tested to verify the material’s performance.

Technological Innovations in Advanced Dust Control Technologies

Advanced Dust Control Technologies

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With heightened awareness of the dangers of silica dust, the industry is adopting more advanced dust control measures. These include enhanced ventilation systems, wet-cutting techniques, and improved personal protective equipment (PPE) to minimize workers’ exposure to harmful dust particles during cutting and processing operations​.

TechnologyShort Description
Enhanced Ventilation SystemsCaptures and removes dust at the source using localized exhaust ventilation systems (hoods, ducts, air cleaners, and fans).
Wet Cutting TechniquesUses water to suppress dust during cutting operations, reducing airborne dust generated.
Improved PPEIncludes advanced respirators with HEPA filters, full-face masks, and PAPRs for better protection against fine silica dust.
Dust Suppression SpraysApplies water or chemical solutions to dust-prone areas to prevent dust from becoming airborne.
Vacuum ExcavationUses powerful vacuums to remove dust and debris directly from the source during excavation or drilling operations.
Enclosed CabinsProvides air-conditioned cabins with filtered air to protect machinery operators from dust exposure.
Dust Collection SystemsCombines fans, filters, and ductwork to capture and collect dust from industrial processes.
Automated Water Misting SystemsDisperses fine water droplets to capture and settle dust particles, operating continuously or at intervals.
Fog CannonsCreates a fine mist to capture dust particles and bring them to the ground, useful in large open areas.
Dust Barriers and CurtainsInstalls physical barriers and curtains around dust-generating activities to contain and control dust spread.

Resin-Based Alternatives

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Research and development into new resin-based alternatives are ongoing. These materials are designed to replace traditional engineered stone while eliminating or significantly reducing silica content. These alternatives are being tested for their durability and safety to ensure they do not pose unforeseen risks in the future​.

Summary of Major Differences

  • Silica Content: Resin-based alternatives and Silica-Free Engineered Stone aim to eliminate or significantly reduce silica content, while Sintered Stone contains natural silica in a less harmful form.

  • Safety: Resin-based alternatives and Silica-Free Engineered Stone are designed to be safer by eliminating silica, whereas Sintered Stone is considered safer than traditional engineered stone but still contains some silica.

  • Composition: Resin-based alternatives use synthetic resins and fillers. Sintered Stone is made from natural raw materials through high pressure and temperature, and Silica-Free Engineered Stone uses a mix of recycled materials and polymers without silica.

  • Durability: All three materials are engineered to be durable, though their composition and processing methods differ, impacting their specific performance characteristics and applications.

Education and Training

Education and Training

As part of the transition, there is an emphasis on educating workers and businesses about safe handling practices and the proper use of new materials. Safe Work Australia is developing guidelines and support materials to help the industry adapt to the ban and ensure compliance with the latest safety standards​.

List of Trainings Implemented after the Engineered Stone Ban

  • Material Handling and Safety Training: Educate workers on the properties, risks, and safe handling procedures of new materials introduced as alternatives to engineered stone.

  • Use of Enhanced Ventilation Systems: Train workers on operating and maintaining advanced ventilation systems to ensure effective dust control.

  • Wet Cutting Techniques: Teach workers the proper use of wet cutting techniques to minimize dust generation.

  • PPE Usage and Maintenance: Ensure workers are proficient in selecting, using, and maintaining the appropriate PPE for handling new materials.

  • Emergency Response and First Aid: Prepare workers to respond effectively to emergencies related to exposure or accidents involving new materials.

  • Regulatory Compliance and Reporting: Ensure businesses and workers understand the legal requirements and reporting procedures related to the ban on engineered stone.

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Conclusion

The Australian stone industry’s response to the ban on high-silica-engineered stone has spurred significant technological innovation and a shift towards safer, more sustainable materials. Sintered stone and silica-free engineered stone have emerged as viable alternatives, offering durability and low-silica content. Advanced dust control technologies and comprehensive worker training programs are enhancing safety standards across the sector. These advancements protect workers’ health and pave the way for a more responsible and future-ready stone industry.

At Dayjob Recruitment, we are at the forefront of supporting a safer work environment in the stone industry. Whether you’re a skilled professional seeking to join a company that prioritizes worker safety, or an employer looking for experts well-versed in the safest, most modern stone fabrication techniques, we invite you to explore the opportunities with us. Contact us to discover how our dedication to safety and innovation translates into unique job openings in stone mason jobs in Australia, and learn how we can connect you with highly trained, knowledgeable professionals who are ready to make a significant impact in your organization.

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FAQs

What is the future of engineered stone in Australia?

The future of engineered stone in Australia will likely see continued innovation and a shift towards safer and more sustainable materials. The ban on high-silica engineered stone has accelerated the development and adoption of alternatives like sintered stone and silica-free engineered stones, which offer similar aesthetic and functional benefits without the associated health risks. The industry is expected to enhance these alternatives’ availability and affordability, making them more accessible to a broader market.

What are the environmental impacts of producing sintered stone compared to traditional natural stones like granite and marble?

Producing sintered stone generally has a lower environmental impact than traditional natural stones. The manufacturing process for sintered stone uses recycled materials and requires less water and energy than the quarrying, cutting, and polishing processes of granite and marble. Additionally, the ability to manufacture sintered stone locally reduces the carbon footprint associated with transportation. 

However, the energy-intensive sintering process does have an environmental cost, though it is often offset by the durability and longevity of the material, which reduces the need for frequent replacements.

How do silica-free engineered stones compare in terms of price and durability?

Silica-free engineered stones are generally more expensive than traditional engineered stones due to the innovative materials and manufacturing processes involved. However, their increased price is justified by their enhanced safety profile, as they eliminate the health risks associated with silica dust. In terms of durability, silica-free engineered stones offer excellent resistance to scratches, stains, and heat, comparable to or even exceeding traditional options. 

The initial higher investment can lead to long-term savings, thanks to their longevity and reduced maintenance needs.

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