Saudi silica surge

By Mike O'Driscoll
Published: Wednesday, 06 June 2012

High purity silica and quartz development is very much on the agenda for Saudi Arabia. IM reports on silica matters seen and heard in Jeddah

Dr Abdullah Attas, SGS

Growth opportunities for silica sand and quartz are attracting increasing attention, and this is nowhere better exemplified than in, of all places, Saudi Arabia.

The sand abundant country has made no secret of its strategy in diversifying into natural resources other than oil and gas, ie. mining. And its drive to also establish high-tech downstream manufacturing industries chimes neatly with market demand for high quality grades of silica in hi-tech applications such as in electronics and the photovoltaic (PV) sectors.

To this end, the Saudi Geological Survey (SGS) organised Silica Arabia 2012, a highly successful conference which took place 12-14 March 2012 in Jeddah, bringing together around 100 leading lights of the world of silica and high purity quartz supply, processing, and consumption.

Silica & quartz resources

Saudi Arabia has abundant silica resources which were outlined by Dr Abdullah Al-Attas, Assistant President for Technical Affairs in his paper “Silica sand and quartz resources in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.

Most high grade silica sand in the country occurs in sandstone formations that bound the Arabian Shield to the north and east, as well as quartz.

The sandstones are in general friable, loosely to moderately cemented and require crushing to yield silica sand.

The majority of silica sand resources have white, moderately sorted sand with low-iron and other contaminants. A typical silica sand composition from Jizan grades 97.3-99.4% SiO2, 0.04-0.05% Fe2O3.

Saudi silica sand output has increased from 364,000 tonnes in 2003 to an estimated 920,000 tonnes in 2011.

The main silica deposits are in the areas of Tabuk, Tayma, Al Jawf, Qasim, and Riyadh and the two commercially developed production centres are at Ad-Doghm (near Riyadh) and Tayma South.

Producing companies at Ad-Doghm include: Rabiah & Nasser, Delmon, National Factory, Adwan Chemicals, Aldrees, and Ad-Doghom Mining.

Producers at Tayma South include: Al-Zahid Mining, Almarbaie, Muadinoon, Zahrat al-Riyad, Tuwaig, and Al-Raddadi.

Most quartz occurrences in Saudi Arabia are found as quartz veins with some quartz cupolas (Bisha area) and pegmatites.

Conventionally, zoned pegmatite bodies have been mined for feldspar as the feldspar occurs in the marginal zone of such bodies. Such deposits need more investigation to be used for selective mining of quartz and feldspar.

The SGS has initially selected four locations for core drilling to evaluate quartz in terms of quality and tonnage. This investigation will start towards the end of 2012 for a two-year period.

Clive Mitchell, industrial minerals specialist, British Geological Survey, UK, in his paper “The role of national geological surveys in evaluation of high-purity silica resources” reminded delegates of the basics of silica sand field work, geology, and assessing deposits related to end use using the UK silica industry and world trade data as examples. He also underlined: “National geological surveys have a wider responsibility than those that are purely geological.”

Processing the key

Imperative to the development of Saudi Arabia’s silica and quartz resources is the harnessing of suitable and modern mineral processing methods.

In his paper, “The importance of processing silica sand”, Mike Lavender, consultant, UK, after detailing a range of techniques, emphasised the importance of detailed exploration, a controlled and consistent end product, and pursuit of the simplest processing techniques.

Dr Wolfgang Rubarth, managing director, AKW Apparate+Verfahren GmbH, Germany, presented “Speciality sand processing”, and commented: “The plant design should be as flexible as possible to meet end user specifications and the deposit characteristics and operator requirements.”

Luis Fernando Diego, export manager, Anivi Ingenieria SA, Spain, focused on “Ultrafine grinding for high purity silica sand and quartz”, and considered the following as key factors: size and moisture content of feed material, a suitable grinding circuit, high efficiency classifiers, and logistics of materials.

Dietmar Alber, divisional manager, Minerals & Metals Division, Hosokawa Alpine AG, Germany, presented “Micronisation and design of particle size distributions of high and ultra high purity quartz and silica sand for high-tech applications”, and summarised: “Grinding of very hard minerals such as natural silica down to the nano range is possible, contamination can be avoided up a limit of 300ppm, and excellent wear protection for iron-free processing is available.”

Ceramics & glass markets

Almost 70% of Saudi silica sand production is consumed by the domestic glass and ceramics markets. The country exported a total of 435,256 tonnes of silica sand in 2010 to mostly ceramics and glass consumers in Gulf Co-operation Countries (GCC), compared to 372,000 tonnes in 2003.

Glass and ceramics remain the main markets for silica sand each of which continue to grow, with the latest data showing glass growth in 2010 up 6%, and ceramics growth up 10% in the same year.

Glass and glassware output in 2003 in Saudi Arabia was just 103,000 tonnes in 2003, but by 2010 had risen to 334,000 tonnes following significant peaks of production in 2005 (250,000 tonnes) and 2008 (347,000 tonnes).

Ceramics output was also in its infancy at 2003 at just 202,000 tonnes, which by 2010 had soared to 2.3m tonnes, following peaks in 2000 (560,000 tonnes), 2002 (1.2m tonnes), and 2003 (1.6m tonnes).

Murray Lines, consultant, Stratum Resources Ltd, Australia, provided a comprehensive review of silica sand and quartz sources and markets of the Asia-Pacific region and observed that Vietnam is becoming a major exporter of silica sand to markets in South East Asia for use mainly in glass and foundries.

Speakers and hosts at Silica Arabia 2012, Jeddah,
12-14 March 2012

Frac sand development

The author presented “Frac sand frenzy: a focus on supply and demand”, summarising the basic requirements and use of frac sand, concluding that US oil and gas explorers were looking to replicate the success of the North American shale gas boom worldwide, and that demand for frac sand should remain healthy for some time to come.

However, strange as it may seem, the development of frac sand production in Saudi Arabia remains in its infancy, but that may be about to change.

The few existing frac sand producers in Saudi Arabia are looking to expand their production capacities while others are seeking to evaluate their raw material sources for development.

It is understood that just two producers, Adwan Chemical Industries Co. Ltd and Delmon Co. Ltd, are producing frac sand.

In 2011, Adwan Chemical doubled its 200,000 tpa capacity with a new plant which has assisted its efforts to increase its frac sand supply as well as meeting increasing demand from domestic foundry, fibreglass, and filler markets.

At the conference, a company spokesperson told IM that the Adwan Chemical had been supplying frac sand to South East Asia and Australia and wished to enhance its frac sand capabilities.

Most of the frac sand produced in Saudi Arabia is exported since there is little domestic demand at present.

Total Saudi silica sand imports in 2010 were 46,437 tonnes, most of which were frac sand grades, according to Mian Habib, technical advisor at the SGS.

These frac sand imports are thought to be brought in by the various oilfield service companies supplying the rigs with a range of drilling materials.

However, frac sand demand is expected to rise in Saudi Arabia as state-owned oil and gas producer Saudi Aramco embarks on a campaign to explore for new gas reservoirs which is scheduled to peak in 2015.

Aramco has been trialling open hole multistage fracturing techniques with positive results in the Southern Area gas fields.

As part of the country’s government-supported push to develop its mineral resources, Saudi Arabian silica sand producers are looking to develop more frac sand grades for an anticipated near future domestic market, as well as for export markets, and this is intended to replace frac sand imports.

During the conference, silica sand producers Al-Zahid Industrial and Mining Group and Hamad Aldrees & Partners Co., each expressed a keen interest in pursuing the frac sand market (see p.14-15 for details of Frac Sand Forum, Houston, 21 June 2012).

Downstream focus

Despite the growth of the traditional domestic markets of glass and ceramics in recent years, the potential of developing high-tech industries from utilising silica sand and high purity quartz is clearly the lead strategy of the Saudi government.

This was well explained in the presentation “Downstream opportunities in silica sand & quartz value chain in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, by Kenneth Matz, vice president, Metals Processing Centre of the National Industrial Clusters Development Program of the Ministry of Commerce & Industry.

The programme is to essentially kick-start the development of “export-oriented and long term globally competitive manufacturing clusters that leverages the Kingdom’s energy, petrochemical and mineral resources”.

Matz told delegates: “The Kingdom has vast high quality silica sand and potentially considerable quartz resources which can be used in high technology applications such as sodium silicates, colourless glass, semi conductors, and solar panels.”

“At present, there is minimal development of value-added industries utilising these resources.” Matz added.

The objective for Saudi Arabia is to produce the highest value-added products from its available resource quality.

To that end, Matz outlined an innovative Saudi silica deposit site selection matrix to guide investors for high potential locations.

High purity quartz

Introduced as “Dr Quartz”, Dr Reiner Haus, managing director, Dorfner ANZAPLAN GmbH, Germany, cornered the high purity quartz sector with two excellent papers: “New developments in high purity quartz for the solar silicon market” and “Advanced quartz qualities markets and applications.”

According to Haus, silicon production for the solar cell sector was 212,000 tonnes in 2011, with an estimated 15% share produced by direct reduction technology which would account for 150,000 tonnes of quartz, representing two thirds of the current high quality quartz world market.

“Only companies having a reliable integrated quartz source and processing technology will be successful in the long term.” commented Haus.

He concluded: “The future will see the Siemens process for the highest quality modules, where only limited space is available to install, in competition with the direct reduction [DR] and upgraded metallurgical silicon [UMG] processes where the overall costs are lower.”

Haus outlined the main markets for advanced quartz grades as being microelectronics, 73%, lighting, 10%, base materials, 8%, crucibles, 7%, and optics, 2%.

Essentially, advanced quartz resources are of limited availability, but are becoming of high strategic interest to many fast growing hi-tech industries such as high temperature lamp tubing, telecommunication and optics, semiconductor, microelectronics and (solar) silicon production.

Haus said: “The detailed specification of advanced quartz qualities very much depend on the final application. There is no standard technology route that applies to processing quartz into advanced qualities.”

“In order to maximise the value and potential applications, process development has to take into account detailed mineralogical and chemical analyses to make the tailor made processing steps fit to the specifics of mineral and fluid inclusions.” Haus added.

Svein Olerud
, chief executive officer, The Quartz Corp., introduced his company to the conference, a 50:50 joint venture between Imerys and Norsk Mineral producing high purity quartz in the US and Norway.

During 2011, The Quartz Corp. produced from two locations: Spruce Pine, North Carolina, US, 20,000 tonnes high purity quartz feed, 200,000 tonnes feldspar, and 16,000 tonnes of mica from three mines and two processing plants; and from Drag, Norway, 10,000 tonnes of high purity quartz feed from three mines and one processing plant.

Regarding The Quartz Corp’s markets, just over 75% of sales supply the solar crucible market, followed by other markets such as tubes, optics, semiconductors, and fillers.

Olerud reported that sales had increased markedly from just under Norwegian krone 50m($8.4m) in 2006, to around Norwegian krone 230m($38.7m) in 2011.

Total combined high purity quartz finished product for the company is 10,000 tpa, with two thirds sourced from Spruce Pine and one third from Drag. The Quartz Corp. is planning to increase capacity at Drag.

Chris Spencer
, industrial minerals consultant, France, highlighted news of a high purity quartz project in west Mauritania, 120km east of the port of Nouadhibo, under development by Mauritanian Minerals Co. Early stage studies confirm resource quality and volumes, and Spencer said “production of silica lumps is imminent.”

MMC envisages development spearheaded by sales of lump quartz to the silicon metal market, and the EMC filler market (epoxy moulding compound used in microelectronics) as “very promising”.

There is also claimed potential for fused quartz markets based on naturally low levels of impurities, although significant research and development is required. “The fused quartz market is a major challenge and partnerships are a serious option.” said Spencer.

PV industry push

IDEA International for Investment & Development is building a 10,000 tpa 9N polysilicon plant in Yanbu, western Saudi Arabia, expected to be on stream by the first quarter of 2015.

This is one of several projects aimed to kick-start a polysilicon and photovoltaic (PV) industry in Saudi Arabia which will demand inputs of metallurgical grade silicon derived from the country’s silica and quartz deposits.

IDEA specialises in the development and implementation of petrochemical, chemical, power and mineral industrial projects in Saudi Arabia, and its polysilicon project is operated by IDEA Polysilicon Co.

Dr Basel Abu Sharkh
, managing director, of IDEA said: “Plant capacity will be 10,000 tpa polysilicon, of which 4,000 tpa will be transformed into wafers capable to produce about 560 MW of solar energy.”

The slicing of silicon wafers from polycrystalline ingots will also require silicon carbide abrasive slurry used in the wire sawing process, and a new joint venture company has been formed to set up a silicon carbide plant in Yanbu (see below).

Sharkh highlighted the main benefits in choosing Yanbu and Saudi Arabia for the project to include: support from government strategy; anticipated Saudi and Gulf Co-operation Council country solar cell projects (to include regional plans for more than 30GW); proximity to the European market and potential African market; and proximity to raw material reserves (ie. quartz concessions in Saudi Arabia).

In his informative presentation “Investment in polysilicon production”, Alan Elyousfi, business development manager for GT Advanced Technologies, showed how polysilicon production costs could be brought down to around $22/kg.

With contract pricing to 2014 forecast in the region of $40-50/kg, the market outlook was very positive.

In support of new polysilicon plants such as envisaged in Saudi Arabia, Elyousfi commented: “If global PV goals for 2020 are achieved, [present] polysilicon production would need to increase by as much as 800%.”

Silicon metal production

IDEA is also looking to integrate upstream by establishing a $170m., 50,000 tpa silicon metal plant in the Yanbu Solar Park.

“This will produce two grades: one needed as a feedstock to polysilicon projects, the other will be used in aluminium and steel manufacturing plants.” said Sharkh.

For feedstock the plant intents to utilise high quality metallurgical grade quartz from deposits in north, central, and south-west Saudi Arabia.

Sharkh said: “Success of silicon manufacturing largely depends on the quality and cost of feedstock material and electric power cost.”

IDEA is also developing a synthetic soda ash plant and calcium chloride plant in Jubail.

SiC plant for Yanbu

has learned that a new joint venture has been formed to develop a silicon carbide plant in Yanbu, on the west coast of Saudi Arabia.

Construction of a 24,000 tpa silicon carbide plant is expected to start in 2013 with completion towards the end of that year.

The joint venture partners are Washington Mills Electro Minerals Corp., US, Rabiah & Nasser Co. (Ranco), Saudi Arabia, and Sumitomo Corp., Japan, and the new company is called Nova Silicon Carbide Co.

At the conference, Nisar Ahmed, project development manager, told IM: “Target market applications include wire sawing abrasive slurry for slicing silicon wafers for the photovoltaic (PV) market and in automobile diesel particulate filters (DPF)”.

Saudi Arabia is pushing ahead in developing a domestic polycrystalline silicon industry to serve growth markets such as PV which will in turn provide a growth market for silicon carbide in wafer slicing.

Ranco, a large diversified industrial group based in Riyadh, owns a high purity silica sand mine about 40km east of Riyadh. This plant supplies a range of silica markets and will supply the silica raw material for the Yanbu plant.

The news comes three years on from a similar but short-lived foray into the region by Washington Mills in March 2009.

At that time an agreement was signed with Saudi Arabian investor Ahmad H. Algosibi & Brothers Co. and Sumitomo Corp. Inc., to start a new 24,000 tpa silicon carbide plant in Jubail Industrial Park, east Saudi Arabia.

Production was expected to start in early 2011 but the project never came to fruition.

Certainly one of the attractions in setting up a fusion plant in the Middle East is the benefit of relatively low cost energy supply - essential for the high levels of electrical power required in electrofusing minerals.

Which is perhaps why Imerys in late 2011 announced its intention to establish a joint venture with Al Zayani Investments for the construction of a white fused alumina plant in Bahrain.

Imerys is the world’s leading producer of white fused alumina through wholly-owned subsidiaries Treibacher Schleifmittel AG of Austria and C-E Minerals of the US.

The Bahrain plant would mark the group’s first operation in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in January 2012, Washington Mills tied up a silicon carbide supply deal with Targray Technology International Inc. to supply specific silicon carbide grades from Washington Mills AS, Norway, to the Asian PV market under an exclusive agreement.

Targray Technology is to distribute Washington Mills’ Carborex SiC grade to Taiwan which will be used in wire sawing silicon metal wafers - a growing market for silicon carbide in Asia (see IM April 2010: The cut & thrust of SiC).