Russian zeolite industry could get second wind from changing government policy

By IM Staff
Published: Monday, 21 December 2015

A state-backed programme to substitute imports of certain food products, such as premixes for animal feeds which Russia previously sourced from the West, could give a leg-up to Russia’s zeolite industry, which collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Vladislav Vorotnikov, IM Correspondent, discovers how local businesses are taking the opportunity to expand the market for zeolite.

The upheaval of the Russian economy over the last two years as a result of sanctions following the annexation of Ukraine, the devaluation of the rouble and the decline in global oil prices may have an unexpected silver lining, in the form of the rising demand for zeolite. 

Zeolite production has attracted little investment in Russia in the last few decades, despite favourable local conditions for mining the mineral and the promise of state support for such projects, owing to the fact that there has been little or no domestic market for it.

Russia has huge reserves of zeolite mineralisation, according to official data from the Federal Agency for Subsoil Usage. Statistics indicate that the country contains around 120 confirmed deposits of zeolite-hosting rocks, 14 of which are owned by the state. In tonnage terms, domestic resources amount to approximately 661.9m tonnes, making up 40% of all zeolite reserves in the former Soviet Union. 

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Zeolite uses

Zeolites are silicate minerals, consisting of interlocking tetrahedrons of silicon (SiO4) and alumina (AlO4). Unlike most other tectosilicates, zeolites have large vacant spaces, or cages, in their structures that provide space for large cations like sodium, potassium, barium and calcium and even relatively large molecules and anion groups such as water, ammonia, carbonates and nitrates. 

Zeolites can be used for many purposes. They can perform ion exchange, filtering, odour removal, chemical sieving and gas absorption tasks. The most common use for zeolites is in water softeners, but the mineral is also widely used as a mineral supplement for animal nutrition. 

Binding agents based on zeolite function as carriers, or base components, for the production of premixes for animal feed. The mineral also serves as an anti-caking agent in the manufacturing process and, once fed to animals, helps stabilise animals’ digestive tracts and bolster the intestinal function of calves.

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Russian policy

Since 2014, Russia has significantly reduced its imports of most feed additives and premixes due to the implementation of the so-called food embargo effected by the country’s government against shipments of Western foods in August of that year. This was followed shortly afterwards by the adoption of a food substitution policy in Russia’s agricultural sector. 

As well as political reasons for the embargo, the drop in imports was partly connected with the collapse in the Russian currency against the US dollar and the euro, which made purchasing raw materials for animal feed from abroad more expensive. 

This import substitution policy is expected to breathe life back into two major Russian zeolite mining projects, one in the Bashkortostan Republic in the south of the European part of the country and one in the Yakutia Republic in Russia’s Far East. Both mines were brought online during the Soviet Union period, but were abandoned after the collapse of the communist regime in 1991 due to a lack of investment and low potential profitability.

Russia also has two large deposits of zeolites – Flora and Hetinskoe – situated in the Magadan Oblast in the east of the country. According to official studies, these deposits have reserves of 114m tonnes with an average zeolite content of 24-56%. However, neither of these are currently being developed.

Government support offered to projects that aid the import substitution policy could alter this situation and possibly almost triple zeolite production volumes in Russia from the current 17,000 tpa to 60,000 tpa within the next few years.

In addition to the development of mining, the revival of the zeolite industry could give impetus to a number of other Russian industries, including livestock farming, due to the increase in supply of zeolite-based feed additives and premixes. 

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Sibai development

In Bashkortostan, investment interest in zeolite is centred on the area’s Sibai deposit. The republic’s Research and Scientific Institute has been studying the characteristics of the mineralised prospects for the last two decades and, in the opinion of the researchers, the project has promising potential for development.

According to geological analysis of Sibai, the deposit’s zeolite mineralised layer exists at surface, with thicknesses ranging from 70cm to 10 metres.

Mary Malikova, doctor of agricultural sciences and chief researcher at the Bashkortostan Technical Research Institute of Agriculture’s feed laboratory, said that the positive effect of zeolite-based feed additives on the productivity of agricultural animals has been demonstrated by several studies over recent years.

"We studied in detail the chemical composition of the zeolites of the Sibai deposit and its effects on the bodies of animals," she said. "First, we conducted an experiment at the Ufa experimental farm, which had an average milk yield from forage feeding cattle of 5.5 tonnes of milk per cow, per year. By adding 150g of zeolite from the Sibai deposit to the diet, we received a 350-480kg gain in milk yield per cow, per year." 

"Neither the [rest of the cows’] diet, nor the conditions [health] of the cows have changed. As a result, for every one dollar invested [in purchasing of zeolite for feeding purposes], we received 16 dollars of profit," she added.

Similar studies have been conducted on feeding mineral supplements to pigs and poultry. Scientists note that especially interesting results have been recorded in egg production from chickens following the addition of zeolite to poultry feed. Zeolite from the Sibai deposit also contains other elements, such as calcium, phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, copper, zinc, cobalt and manganese in biologically available forms, which additionally benefit the productivity of animals.

"Zeolites from the Sibai deposit contain 2.5% calcium in an easily accessible form," explained Malikova. "Compensating for the lack of calcium in the diet of birds, zeolite has significantly reduced the percentage of broken eggs, as shells become much stronger. Also, the average weight of the eggs increased by 62-65g and their incubation hatchability improved."

The Ufa Mining and Processing Works (UMPW) was one company which had previously produced zeolite from Sibai but ceased operations a number of years ago due to lack of demand. However, representatives of the business, which have retained their ownership of part of the Sibai deposit, say that in the case of rising demand it can quickly restore production at a rate of hundreds of tonnes per year.

Roman Davydenko, head of investment at the government of Bashkortostan, said that there is a clear rise in interest in producing zeolite. "This [interest] is not limited to the animal feed industry," he said. "In particular, some companies are currently exploring the ability of zeolites to adsorb harmful substances. One Moscow firm is engaged in studying the possibility of using Sibai zeolites for sewage treatment, while researchers at Magnitogorsk are trying to use zeolites to filter drinking water."

"The adsorption properties of zeolites are already utilised in a number of industries. For example, in Bashkortostan, synthetic zeolites are supplied to the market by the Ishimbay chemical plant. Their main purchasers are large oil and gas and energy companies such as Gazprom, Sibur and Novatek," Davydenko added.

According to government estimates, the cost of developing the Sibai deposit to produce 30,000-40,000 tpa zeolite will be between $70m and $120m. Reserves of zeolite in the area are currently pegged at around 1m tonnes, but the actual resource could be much larger. Exploration at the site is being conducted by locally-based Ufa company, JSC Dior, and St Petersburg-based Tehkvartsprom. 

Representatives from the two companies have so far refrained from commenting on the progress of the exploration work, but according to an agreement between the miners and the local authorities, first results from exploration work should be available by the end of this year, with further results expected to be released at the beginning of 2016. The Agrarian Committee of the State Assembly of Bashkortostan said in October 2015 that zeolite production should resume in the region within the next year.

The regional authorities have promised full state backing for the project and urged companies involved in developing Sibai to target production as soon as possible. "We aim to have the first natural zeolite produced in our region by 2018," said Davydenko. "We have several applications from other investors for the project, so we can be sure that, in the coming years, this [area] will be developed." 

Table: World zeolite production in 2014

Country

Zeolite mine production 2014 (tonnes)

China

2m

Korea (Republic of)

230,000

Turkey

150,000

US

74,000

Jordan

15,000

Other countries

350,000

World total

2.8m 

Source: USGS

Far East expansion

On the other side of Russia, in the country’s Far East, locally-based company Suntartseolit is already mining zeolite from the Khonguruu deposit in the Republic of Yakutia and is the country’s largest producer of the mineral. The company currently supplies around 15,000 tpa zeolite, most of which is supplied to Russia’s largest diamond producer, Alrosa, as an absorber. 

The government of Yakutia wants to create an industrial cluster in the region to include zeolite production and to promote the use of zeolite in other parts of Russia. In August 2015, Yakutia’s Prime Minister, Galina Danchikova, instructed the republic’s First Deputy Prime Minister, Pavel Marinychevu, to come up with measures for implementing a programme of industrial development in the region. As a result of this policy, Suntartseolit has been given an official target of increasing its zeolite production volumes to 35,000 tpa by 2017. 

"The company has been in operation since 1989 and over the past 15 years, the main consumers of hongurin’s zeolite were Alrosa and various local companies in the local Mirny district, which purchase annually around 15,000 tonnes," said Gavril Mikhailov, chief engineer at Suntartseolit.

"At one time, there were attempts to use zeolite in agriculture for the production of balanced feed with a high content of trace elements. We even achieved certification of products, and some farms started to use it, seeking to reduce mortality rates [of animals] while increasing milk yields by 12% and meat gain by 20%. However, all these efforts were buried during the crisis of 90s," Mikhailov said. 

"Now our zeolite is used as an absorbent for cleaning industrial wastewater at the Alrosa’s Aikhal diamond deposit," he explained. "But loading the plant with the mineral treatment does not happen every year, so consumption remains small. However, [Alrosa] plans to increase its overall volume of zeolite consumption with the [launch of] its International mine to 30,000-35,000 tpa," he added.

Suntartseolit said that efforts to expand the company’s range of zeolite products have been ongoing for a number of years, but these have so far been unsuccessful. According to Mikhailov, opportunities to use zeolite in the pharmaceutical and construction industries have been underestimated.

"Recently, we have seen rising interest in zeolite from the building sector, where there is [a desire to shift towards using more] environmentally friendly products to manufacture blocks and concrete products," he said. "At one time, construction company, Yakuttcement, was making annual zeolite purchases of around 10,000 tonnes, but because of the high cost of sea freight, which exceeded the cost of production by almost two times, they stopped buying."

Mikhailov predicts that, "with the reduction of logistics costs, the demand for materials with high thermal insulation and astringent properties would immediately increase".

"Accordingly, we could improve the quality of cement, which may consist of up to 30% of zeolite. In China [construction companies] use up to 70% [zeolite in cement]. But overall zeolite consumption in Yakutia is just 2,000 tpa," he added. 

Suntartseolit is concerned that it could very quickly go bankrupt if Alrosa decides to switch to non-zeolite absorbers. Local experts believe that this will not happen, however, as the diamond miner has no current incentive to change its water treatment technology. Alrosa is also partly state-owned and it is unlikely that the government would allow the company to go out of business.

"Suntartseolit ​​sells zeolite raw materials from its open pit at a price of Russian rouble (R) 1,000/tonne ($20/tonne*), excluding shipping costs. Powder products with particle size fractions of 10-20mm are much more expensive," Mikhailov explained. 

Despite the difficulties of finding new applications for zeolite, the company is taking a proactive approach to both increase the value of its zeolite products and grow the downstream market.

"This year, with our own funds, the company has modernised the crushing plant, with the investment of R500m ($10m). Yakutia’s Chamber of Commerce is currently taking steps to promote zeolite outside the region. This initiative is also supported by the country’s Ministry of Industry," he added. 

Mikhailov said that the company has been told by the local government that it needs a state order for the production and processing of zeolite and that this will secure its future. 

Despite external reassurances, Mikhailov is still nervous about its contract with Alrosa. "At any moment, Alrosa can start purchasing other materials for wastewater treatment, so they will not need zeolite anymore. We think that we should include projects for the production of zeolite in the state programme of import substitution," he said. 

*Conversion made December 2015