| General Chemical Industrial Products (GCIP) can
load l00 and 110-tonnes rail cars in about six minutes at
its plant in Green River, Wyoming, (see inset)
The USA is the worlds second largest natural soda ash
producer since China overtook to become first in 2003. Before,
the USA enjoyed a century of supremacy in world production of
this important industrial commodity. In 2007, the country
produced 11.1m. tonnes of soda ash for a total value of
Soda ash, the commercial name for sodium carbonate
(Na2CO3), is mainly obtained from trona.
One of the ten highest volume minerals produced in North
America, it is mainly used for glass (50%), detergents (15%)
and chemicals (10%).
US natural soda ash is produced in California and in the
Green River Basin in Wyoming, which is the worlds largest
known deposit. The rich deposits are the residue of a 50m-year
old lake, Lake Gosiute, that covered more than
3,100km2. Over millions of years, Lake Gosiute
expanded and contracted in response to changes in the
regions climate, forming at least 42 beds of trona.
Some individual trona beds, at depths of up to 1,070 metres,
are more than 11 metres thick and others underlie as much as
2,200 km2. It is estimated to contain 134,000m.
s.tons of mineable trona, enough to meet global soda ash demand
for hundreds of years at current levels of consumption. In
January 2009, Wyoming produced 1.2m. tonnes of trona.
The US natural soda ash is exploited by five producers, some
of the largest in the world. Four of them are located in
Wyoming, the fifth one being in Searles, California.
Of the five US soda ash producers, only FMC Wyoming Inc,
part of FMC Corp. a diversified chemical company, remains
FMC started to produce soda ash more than 50 years ago in
Solvay Chemicals Inc., subsidiary of Belgium Solvay SA,
began soda ash production in 1982 with an original plant
capacity of 1m. tpa. Over the years, the capacity has been
increased to todays level of 2.8m. tpa.
General Chemical Industrial Products (GCIP) has been mining
and processing trona ore, the raw material of soda ash, since
1968 and is one of the top five global soda ash producers. It
is jointly owned by GCIP (75%) and Owens Illinois (25%), a
world leader in glass container manufacture. In January 2008,
Indias Tata Chemicals Ltd acquired GCIP. The company
operates around the clock, seven days a week, 365 days per
year, mining more than 4.5m. s. tpa of trona ore from which it
processes around 2.6m. tpa of soda ash.
OCI Chemical Corp, part of South Korea DC Chemical Co.,
started production in 1962 and is the worlds third
largest producer of natural soda ash.
Searles Valley Minerals (SVM), subsidiary of Indias
Nirma Ltd, is headquartered in Overland Park, Kansas, and
manages extensive operations in Californias Searles
Valley. It produces more than 1m. tpa of soda ash.
Mine to port
As a Solvay Chemicals representative in North America
explained to IM, the soda ash is shipped all
over the USA, most non-export material goes to the eastern half
of the country. The bulk soda ash can be transported in rail
cars, trucks (25 to 40 s.tons) or bags of various sizes. But
shipment of soda ash by covered hopper car is the most common
In short, commercial grade soda ash leaving the process area
is stored in silos. Conveyors in tunnels beneath the silos
carry the soda ash to trucks and railroad hopper cars. The
Green River railcar loading system can move up to 30 coupled
cars, one at a time - with a between-the-tracks hydraulic car
mover - into loading position under the fill spouts.
For instance, General Chemical can load l00 and 110-tonnes
rail cars in about six minutes. The Green River loading system
loads current plant capacity in five days/week freeing two
days/week for maintenance, loading of special orders, or for
high demand periods.
The American Natural Soda Ash Corp. (ANSAC), the exclusive
export arm for the four producers based in Wyoming, manages the
movement of the soda ash from the plants in Wyoming, to ports
via a dedicated rail system. It uses 100-rail car trains that
only pull soda ash from the plant to a dedicated ocean
terminal. Each rail car carries 100 s.tons of soda ash, meaning
a total of 10,000 s.tons per train.
The primary carrier which transports the soda ash is the
Union Pacific Railroad, an operating subsidiary of Union
Pacific Corp. and the largest railroad in North America. The
railroad serves 23 states across two-thirds of the USA, linking
every major West Coast and Gulf Coast port.
The cost of the transport varies from $15/s. tons for short
moves all the way up to ~$100/s. tons for cross country
In the case of shipment by bulk transports trucks, Solvays
explains that self-container bulk pneumatic transport trucks
with an auxiliary trailer can carry up to about 32,000kg of
soda ash depending on state highway limits. The auxiliary
trailer accounts for approximately 10 s. tons of this capacity
and the truck trailer accounts for approximately 25 s.tons of
Depending on the customers pipeline configuration and
conveying distance, the truck can be unloaded in one to two
hours. The truck capacity limit is dictated by the state
highway load limits.
According to the US Census Bureau, the USA exported about
5.13m. tonnes soda ash in 2007, which represents about 46% of
the US soda ash production. The country exported 455,000 tonnes
in December 2008, a 5% increase comparing to a year before.
ANSAC manages the exportation for the four producers based
in Wyoming. However, as under the Treaty of Rome agreement
(1958) the company is not permitted to ship soda ash to the
European Union, the US soda ash producers formed another
organisation, the American European Soda Ash Shipping
Association Inc. (AESSA), in order to ship to Europe.
The four Wyoming producers export together about 4m. tpa of
natural soda ash, making ANSAC the worlds largest
exporter of natural soda ash. Exports from the four Wyoming
producers leave via Portland, Oregon, on the North-West Coast,
and Port Arthur, which is located 90 miles east of Houston on
the gulf coast of Texas. The fifth producer, SVM in Searles,
California, exports via Long Beach, California, on the West
Coast and material across the USA for its domestic
ANSAC uses two ocean terminals to export the Wyoming soda
ash to Latin America and Asia. One in the pacific North-West
serves Asia and the west coast of Latin America. The other one,
on the US Gulf coast, serves the east coast of Latin America as
well as the other east bound destinations.
Once the product gets to the ocean terminals, it is moved to
export destinations via one of the three ocean freight
arrangements: long-terms charters, contracts of affreightment
and spot freight buys.
In 2007, the USA exported soda ash to 56 countries in the
following regions: South America (27%), Asia (26%) and North
America (26%). In 2008, according to USGC, the main consumers
of US soda ash, representing 71% of the US soda ash exports,
were Mexico (19%) with 1m. tonnes; Brazil (12%) with 646,000
tonnes; Canada (9%) with 390,000 tonnes, Indonesia (6%) with
343,000 tonnes and Chile (6%) with 301,000 tonnes.
The transport of soda ash has lately been challenging as the
shippers have had to handle multi-dimensional difficulties such
as the cost of natural gas, the rising costs of transportation,
and rail congestion. Over the last 12 months, owing to the
financial crisis, the market has seen very extreme volatility
on all fronts.
On one hand, the increased cost of oil has a direct impact
on bunker fuel rates. The volatility in the cost of transport
can be problematic for the export company which operates on a
long-term contracted basis with its customers, and purchases
freight in the same manner.
According to the players, a minimum of stability is
imperative even though certain variables such as the price of
oil or the amount of vessels in service, which leads to
unprecedented charter rates, have lately been quite
unpredictable. All these unstable factors can cause unusual
behaviour on the part of both buyers and sellers in a market,
causing both value distortion and concurrently upsetting supply
The companies also have to make sure that the product
quality is not affected by the method of transport. ANSAC
explained to IM that, in order to ensure the
quality of the product that arrives is the same as that which
left the plant, the company only ships in vessels that are no
more than ten years old, and that meet their standards for hold
cleanliness. They must pass an inspection prior to each
loading. The vessel also has other onboard equipment to ensure