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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
Zeolite mine production 2014
Korea (Republic of)
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
"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
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,"
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
"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
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