Turkey’s soda ash projects today, and how they got there

By IM Staff
Published: Friday, 20 March 2015

Until 1979, Turkey was unaware that it was sitting on two of the largest deposits of trona ore, the main source of natural soda ash, in the world. Since then, the industry has moved in fits and starts to sit on the cusp of becoming a top contender in the global soda ash market. IM takes a look at the history of Turkey’s soda ash industry and how it hopes to develop in the future.

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The town of Beypazari in central Turkey is best known for its historic buildings and natural springs, but is also home to one of the world’s largest deposits of trona.  Natalie Sayin


Soda ash is the informal name given to the chemical, sodium carbonate (Na2CO3). Originally, sodium carbonate was produced naturally from the ashes of plants with high sodium content found near coastal regions, hence the name 'soda ash’. 

Chemical historians believe that soda ash might have been the third 'industrial chemical’ used by humans after salt (NaCl) and lime (CaO). Several sources show that crude soda ash and glass were mentioned in Egyptian writings and samples have been found in a 3,500-year-old tomb in Egypt.

Soda ash can be produced in two ways; synthetically, or or directly from natural mineral deposits. The most common synthetic methods are the Leblanc, Solvay and Hou processes. As an early synthetic production technique, the Leblanc process has now mostly been replaced by the more environmentally friendly Solvay route. 

Natural soda ash is produced from trona. Trona, or trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dihydrate (Na3HCO3CO3·2H2O or Na2CO3.NaHCO3.2H2O), is an evaporite mineral and is the most common naturally occurring sodium carbonate mineral used to produce soda ash. Trona ore can either be mined from alkaline dry lakes or from deposits of similar paleo-lakes locked in the rocks (see Table). 

Production of soda ash from natural sources is considerably less expensive than synthetic production. It uses less energy, contains fewer impurities and does not present the environmental considerations that accompany synthetic production. Due to these advantages, soda ash producers exploiting natural deposits are intrinsically more competitive in the market.  

Regardless of production technique, there are three main grades of soda ash used in the industry: light, medium and dense. Dense soda ash is coarser grained and more compact at 0.89-1.15 tonnes/m3 than the other two forms, as the name implies. This material has better uniformity of grain size and fewer impurities (chloride and iron). This variety of soda ash is the preferred grade for the glass industry, because it contains a lower amount of fines, reducing the amount of material lost during transportation and handling. It also increases the lifespan of the furnaces and molds used in the glass industry due to its low chlorine content. 

Light soda ash is finer grained, has a density of 0.50-0.75 tonnes/m3 and more impurities. This grade is mostly used in the chemical industry and for detergent production. 

Medium grade soda ash has density and grain size properties between those of the other two grades. It serves as a competitive alternative to lighter soda ash in some cases, with less of a dusting problem than its finer-grained counterpart.

Turkey was an importer of soda ash to feed its glass industry until 1975. Although early efforts to produce soda ash from the waters of a large soda lake – Van Lake, in eastern Turkey – were successful, the level of production (~3,000 tonnes) was not enough to support domestic demand. Besides, since Van Lake is not a dry evaporitic lake but a deep alkaline lake, it is not concentrated enough to yield economic volumes of soda ash. 

In 1969, Turkey’s large domestic glass producer, Sisecam AS, operating under the name of its subsidiary Soda Sanayii AS, pioneered local synthetic soda ash production by building a plant in Mersin city in southern Turkey, which began producing in 1975. 

Until 1979, Turkey was unaware that it hosted significant subsurface resources of trona. After the accidental discovery of the Beypazari trona deposit in central Turkey, it was realised that the country’s geology is favorable for the occurrence of this evaporite mineral, a fact that subsequently attracted Anglo-Australian mining giant, Rio Tinto, to explore for, and discover, another trona deposit in the country. 

Natural soda ash deposits worldwide

Country

Location/deposit name*

Soda source

Type

Estimated resources
('000 tonnes)

Estimated grade (%)

US

Wyoming, Green River

Trona

Buried

68,700

90

California Searles Lake

Trona, burkeite

Dry lake

2,000

25

California Owens Lake

Trona, burkeite

Dry lake

50

82

Turkey

Beypazarı

Trona

Buried

240

85

Kazan

Trona

Buried

607

31

China

 Wucheng

Trona, nahcolite

Buried

37

70

 Anpeng

Trona, nahcolite

Buried

119

85

Australia

Denison Trough

Brine

Brine

500

2

Botswana

Sua Pan

Brine

Brine

233

2.5

Chad

Chad Lake

Trona

Dry lake

50

50

Mongolia

 Chaganor

Trona

11

27

 Hetongchahanor

Trona

2

20

Kenya

Magadi Lake

Trona

Dry lake

4,000

94

Mexico

Texcoco Lake

Brine

Dry lake

80

3.7

Tanzania

Manyara Lake

Brine

Dry lake

70

1.9

Natron Lake

Trona

Dry lake

1,000

80

 

*Non-exhaustive list of some of the world’s top natural soda ash deposits.
Source: Modified from Unsal, 2001

Soda Sanayii AS – synthetic soda ash

In 1975, Soda Sanayii AS was established by Turkiye Is Bankasi (Turkey’s first public bank), Sumerbank (which was originally a state-owned Turkish bank and industrial holding company, established in 1933) and Sisecam (Turkey’s largest glass producer). 

Soda Sanayii is now a publicly-listed company on the Istanbul stock market under its parent company, the Sisecam Group, which is an industrial group of companies active in a number of areas of glass and chemicals production. 

Sisecam, which is 65.47% owned by Turkiye Is Bankasi, is itself a major consumer of its own soda ash products. 

Soda Sanayii was Turkey’s first large scale soda as producer and is the only synthetic soda ash producer in the country. It has been producing light and dense soda ash using the Solvay method since 1975 in its factory at Kazanli, a town in the greater Mersin city area.  Also known as Sisecam Chemical Group, Soda Sanayii now owns several companies, operations and manufacturing facilities in Turkey, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Italy and China, with activities in a number of industrial chemical fields, besides soda ash.

The company took an active and aggressive approach to expanding its presence in the soda ash market, opening offices in and outside of Turkey, investing in R&D, increasing both its production and market share and buying stakes in other soda ash plants in Eastern Europe.

In 1997, the Bulgarian state-owned soda ash manufacturer Sodi Denyva decided to privatise its soda ash plant in Denyva, Bulgaria. Sisecam entered a joint venture (JV) agreement with Belgium’s Solvay and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to share ownership of the plant. 

Other parties interested in the project were LG Chemicals, Brunner Mond & Co., D. George Harris and Associates, General Chemical Corp., Anglovaal Ltd and several Nordic and Eastern European firms. 

General Chemical offered $160m for the plant, $40m higher than the second highest bid, but by the end of the year the company had reversed its decision to acquire the soda ash plant, allowing Solvay to win the auction. The Belgian producer later decided to sell a 25% stake in the project to Sisecam.

Sisecam also established a 100%-owned local company called Sisecam Bulgaria Ltd in order to represent Sisecam in Bulgaria and the surrounding area. 

In 2006, the Bosnian government decided to privatise its synthetic soda ash plant, Fabrika Sode Lukovac – the former Yugoslavia’s one and only soda ash producer in the town of Lukovac. Prior to its privatisation, the plant had been struggling and the company had been unable to pay its workers. 

Once the private contract became available, Sisecam initially acquired an 80% interest in the plant and took over its management, changing its name to Sisecam Soda Lukovac. Today, Sisecam has increased its shareholding to a 89.3% interest, while the rest still belongs to the Bosnian government. 

According to Soda Sanayii’s 2014 annual report, the company produced a total of 2.1m tonnes soda ash collectively from its Mersin, Lukovac and Solvay Sodi plants, based on its respective stakeholdings in each facility. 

This output ranks Sisecam as the fourth largest soda ash producer in Europe and the tenth largest in the world. The company saw a 25% increase in revenues from soda ash sales in 2014 compared to 2013, with 64% of all sales going to international markets.

The Mersin plant, which covers an area of 3km2, had a production capacity of 150,000 tpa when it first started in 1975. This has now reached to 1.135m tpa soda ash, consisting of 867,000 tonnes dense material and 268,000 tonnes of light soda ash. 

Approximately 572,000 tonnes of the soda ash produced at Mersin (500,000 tonnes of dense and 72,000 tonnes of light soda ash) were exported to over 50 countries, including Egypt, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Spain and France in 2013. 

In order to achieve its capacity, the Mersin plant uses 1.5m tonnes limestone and 2m tonnes salt. Soda Sanayii has its own limestone quarry and a salt mine close to Mersin, making the raw materials for soda ash production readily available. The company also uses natural gas and co-generation plants (power plants generating electricity and steam/heat using natural gas) to produce the energy needed to power the facility. Moreover, the company consumes a considerable amount of its own soda ash output in glass production in Turkey – giving it a vertically integrated competitive advantage.

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The Beypazari trona deposit

Beypazari is a small town around 100km northwest of Turkey’s capital, Ankara. Famous for its historic buildings, natural mineral water springs, coal resources and geological features, the area is also home to a large trona deposit. 

The Beypazari trona deposit was discovered in 1979 by the Turkish General Directorate of Mineral Research and Exploration (MTA) accidentally while drilling for lignite coal. Following some initial work by the MTA, the mining licence was transferred to Etibank in 1983 – the year in which soda ash was first classified as a national commodity in Turkey. 

Following the receipt of the licence for Beypazari, Etibank spent a number of years looking for partners to conduct feasibility studies and evaluate the project. As such, the development story of Beypazari trona project from discovery to production in 2009 is a long and complicated one. 

In 1983, Etibank decided to open the project to foreign investment and agreed to work with US-based FMC Wyoming on Beypazari’s development. It also approved cooperation with Solvay and International Finance Corp. (IFC). 

FMC pulled out of the project in 1986 before the deal finally fell through in 1989, after which Etibank continued with the project alone. However, the company made no progress between 1989 and 1991, after which Eti decided to revisit some of the international investors which had previously shown an interest in Beyparazi and also looked to engage other local, private companies. 

Between 1991 and 1993, Eti tendered for offers of partnership from a number of companies including FMC, Solvay, BHP Utah, RhonePoulenc, General Chemical, North American Chemical, ElfAquitane/Atochem and Penrice Soda Holdings, but few responded with expressions of interest. 

Following this, the Turkish government removed trona from the list of nationalised commodities in 1993. Between 1993 and 1997, Etibank tried one more time to reach an agreement with two international operators based on a royalty agreement model, but could not agree terms with the potential partners, leading it to abandon the scheme again in 1998. 

That same year, Etibank changed its name to Eti Holding AS and started to look for a local partner with the means to promptly complete a feasibility study on Beyparazi. 

Eti prepared a contract template which provided that it must have a stake in any future development of the deposit and sent this out to the companies that had previously been interested in Beypazari trona. 

Eventually, the company accepted an offer of partnership between Turkish businesses Park Holding AS and Bayindir Holding AS in 1998. A JV company called Eti Soda AS was formed, with 72% interest given to Park/Bayindir Holdings, a 26% interest given to Eti Holding and the remaining 2% given to Vakifbank. 

According to the agreement, the investor companies were obliged to spend around $16.5m in order to finish the feasibility studies within 21 months. In the event, the work was not finished and the final bankable feasibility study report was not delivered on time. Eti gave the companies a 12-month extension to complete the study, starting from May 2000.

In the same year, Bayindir Holding transferred all its rights to Vakifbank, which later transferred the entirety of its stake to Park Holding in 2001, forming today’s present stakeholder share allocation of 74% to Park Holding and 26% to Eti Soda. 

The structural geology of the Beypazari deposit is complex, with faults and the presence of ground water and methane (a common problem, as the host rock of trona is an organic rich oil shale). Accordingly, Park Holding encountered ground water and methane at several occasions during underground workings at the site in 2001. 

Despite this, Park decided to pursue an underground mining plan and by May 2002 had drilled 2,056 metres in underground galleries. After several extensions to the original deadline for completing a final evaluation of the project, Eti Soda switched to a solution mining method for the extraction of Beypazari ore in collaboration with a Chinese partner. 

Production at Beypazari officially commenced in March 2009 with a ceremony attended by the Turkish Prime Minister. Output from the plant has been approximately 1m tpa soda ash since 2009 and Eti Soda says that it has been working to expand this to 1.6m tpa – an upgrade which was supposed to have been completed by 2013.

Around 90% of the soda ash produced at Beypazari is exported. Similar to the deposits found in Wyoming in the US, Beypazari trona ore is high grade, reaching up to 87% trona in some zones. It is the third biggest buried trona deposit in the world, after Wyoming and the Kazan trona deposit, also located in Turkey. The known resource at the deposit is about 240m tonnes ore at average of grade of around 85% trona. The deposit covers an area of approximately 8km2 with a 70-100 metre thick ore zone, composed of two trona zones separated by a barren zone. Individual trona zones have 40 centimetre to 9.45 metres-thick pure trona layers and can reach up to 40 metres in width.

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The Kazan trona deposit

The Kazan trona deposit is located at around 100km east of the Beypazari deposit and approximately 35km northwest of Ankara. While Eti Holding was focused on Beypazari in the 1990s, Rio Tinto, one of the world’s biggest mining companies, was exploring for trona in the wider Beypazari area with its Turkish team. 

They found the world’s second biggest buried trona deposit of the world in Kazan in 1998. This discovery was the result of the world’s first successful exploration programme specifically focused on trona.

After the discovery, Rio Tinto’s Turkish subsidiary, RioTur Madencilik, quickly performed resource confirmation and pre-feasibility studies, drilling over 117 cored drill holes totalling 43,600 metres, with the aim of starting production in 2007 to reach 9,000 tpa soda ash by 2011. Then, following a period of subdued activity, which saw the project eventually put on hold, Rio decided to sell the project to Park Holding in 2010. 

After buying the project, Park Holding constructed a pilot plant based on a solution mining method and set up pilot production wells in 2011. In the second half of 2011, they produced the first dense soda ash from brines extracted from the pilot wells. They signed an agreement on funding and engineering services with Tianchen Engineering Corp. as a joint owner in 2013. 

The construction of mining, processing and co-generation plants was scheduled to begin in 2014, with full scale production targeted in 2017 at a rate of 2.5m tpa. However, based on progress to date, it appears that these milestones will not be achieved on time. 

The Kazan trona deposit has a resource of 607m tonnes at an average grade of around 31% trona, making it a lower grade resource than either Beypazari or the Wyoming trona deposits. 

The deposit covers an area of 20km2 and hosts 12 trona beds that vary in depth from 420 metres in the northwest to 850 metres in the southeast. The thickness of its ore zone in between these two ends reaches to a maximum of 109 metres and averages 54 metres.   

Outlook for Turkish soda ash

Several sources show that global soda ash consumption is growing at an average annual rate of 3% per year. It is thought that the growth in 2014 was largely due to the demand from China and India. This is not surprising, given that the main buyers of soda ash are glass producers, primarily companies producing flat glass, which serve the construction industry.

High rates of urbanisation and increasing populations in Asian countries have led to increasing demand for soda ash. 

China has excess domestic production of soda ash, which is almost entirely synthetic. Due to the high costs of energy required in synthetic production, China is not likely to be a competitive soda ash exporter in the international market, unless additional natural deposits of at least 200m tonnes are discovered in the country.

Only the US, Turkey, China and some African countries have soda ash production from natural minerals (see Table). All other soda ash producing countries use synthetic methods. 

Turkey has the second and the third largest natural trona deposits in the world and is the only country with natural soda ash resources in Europe. This gives it an advantageous position to be a competitive supplier to Europe. 

After the planned capacity increase at the Beypazari soda ash plant is completed and the Kazan plant comes online with a its proposed 2.5m tpa capacity, total soda ash production in Turkey is expected be over 5m tpa, around 78% of which will be from natural sources. This will make Turkey the largest soda ash producer in Europe and the third biggest producer in the world. 

Since the Beypazari plant started production in 2009, there have been a number of reported closures in Europe, namely in UK (2014), Portugal (2014), Romania (2010) and Netherlands (2009). 

The growth of Turkey as a soda ash producer with low cost natural sources could cause many more synthetic soda ash plants to shut down in Europe. 

References

USGS Minerals Yearbook for Soda Ash, from 1975 to 2014.

Harrigan K. R., 1980, "Declining Demand, Divestiture, and Corporate Strategy"

Garrett D. E., 1992, "Natural Soda Ash: Occurrences, Processing, and Use, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York 

JMO – Haber Bulteni, 2001, Journal of Chamber of Geological Engineers-Turkey, "Trona"

Unsal A., 2001, "Soda Kulu ve Ekonomisi: Economy of Soda Ash", Eti Holding AS

Küçükyilmazlar A., 2004, "Trona", Istanbul Ticaret Odasi Sektor Profil Arastirmasi

Swanson A., "Turkish soda ash exports threaten European producers", IHS