Nepheline ores mined in the Bashkiria
republic of Russia's southern Urals region could be a
source of soda ash )source: Alexey Shockov, via
Depleting limestone reserves in Russia could benefit from
new technology capable of extracting soda ash from
The process has been developed by Achins Alumina Refinery
(AAR), a subsidiary of aluminium giant Rusal. The technology
builds upon a laboratory-based method discovered by the Russian
National Aluminium-Magnesium Institute in the 1990s as part of
a series of studies on domestic natural resources pursued under
the Soviet regime.
The technology offers an alternative way of producing
synthetic soda ash, which is typically made from limestone and
salt. The Achins method involves several steps of sintering
nepheline ore – a feldspathoid mineral – and
limestone, followed by hydro-chemical processing.
A sintered mass, consisting of a mixture of nepheline and
limestone, is leached using water to produce separated sodium
silicate (which can be used to make cement). The resulting
concentrates of sodium and potassium aluminate are then
converted via carbonisation into aluminum hydroxide, soda ash
According to the developers of the technology and
representatives of Rusal, the technique is almost completely
waste-free. This is because the aim of the process is to
produce alumina, with soda ash and other materials forming as
byproducts, which can be used as valuable raw materials in
their own right.
AAR currently produces 1.07m tpa G-00 grade alumina
– a very high purity crystalline powder form of the
mineral – and 500,000 tpa soda ash. The company uses
material from the Kiya-Shaltyr nepheline mine in Krasnoyarsk
Krai, Siberia, as a feedstock. At 500,000 tonnes,
AAR’s soda ash output is sufficient to supply 30%
of Russia’s domestic market for the mineral.
The company estimates that it brings in an additional 15-20%
in revenue from selling the soda ash. Its production capacity
for both alumina and soda ash may be increased in the near
future, since Rusal announced in 2014 that it was seeking to
become self-sufficient in raw materials.
For soda ash, although Russian demand is likely to be flat
to weak this year, having shrunk by around 5-6% in 2015, a
market opportunity could arise on the back of possible
disruption to Russia’s Bashkir Soda Company (BSK),
the biggest player on the domestic market, which is reportedly
struggling to secure raw materials for the future. The project
could also benefit if the government decides to reduce imports
of soda ash.
Physicochemical characteristics of soda ash
produced from nepheline raw
Sodium carbonate mass fraction
(Na2CO3), mass %, min
Potassium carbonate mass fraction
(K2SO3), mass %, max
Mass fraction of sulphur compound in
conversion to potassium sulfate
(K2SO4), mass %, max
Mass fraction of ferrum in conversion to
ferrum oxide (Fe2O3),
mass %, max
Mass fraction of insoluble residue, mass. %,
Mass fraction of potassium chloride (KCl),
mass %, max
Packed density, g/cm3, min
Source: AAR data
BSK’s battle for
The size of the Russian soda ash market is estimated to be
around 2.8m tpa, having increased by around 30% over the last
15 years, according to figures published by the Russian State
Statistical Service (Rosstat). Although it contracted last
year, the market today is broadly stable and BSK supplies
around half of all domestic consumption, at around 1.4m tpa,
which it produces synthetically from limestone mined from the
Bashkiria Republic in southern Russia’s Urals
Most of the company’s limestone comes from the
Shahtau mine, but BSK has said it expects this deposit will be
exhausted within the next few years.
In October last year, BSK was informed by Sberbank,
Russia’s biggest lender, that the company may be
unable to access further loans by as early as 2017 if it does
not redress its looming raw materials shortage.
For the past two years, BSK has been trying to obtain the
right to produce limestone from the Shishau deposit, which is
situated close to its existing Shahtau operation. However,
the site is located on land considered to be part of a
cultural heritage area for Bashkiria’s Muslim
community, as well as being an ecologically sensitive
environment, and the mining application has therefore been met
with fierce opposition.
BSK failed to win a legal challenge to the designation of
Shishau as a protected area, meaning the company has had to
look for other deposits but has so far found none that meet its
"If the banks will not extend their loan agreements, BSK
will have no funds for current operations and the modernisation
of its soda ash plant," a company source, who preferred not to
be named, told IM. "If the authorities do not
provide the company with the limestone deposits it needs, the
business, along with its 5,000 employees, will cease to exist
almost immediately," they added, warning that if BSK is
allocated an uneconomic limestone deposit, this will also risk
the collapse of the company.
Developing a new deposit from scratch requires four-to-five
years of preparatory exploration work, the source said, noting
that a decision is already around two years overdue.
The uncertainty over BSK’s future could prove
beneficial to other Russian soda ash producers, however, as
prices could rise on fears of tighter supply. The decline in
the value of the Russian rouble (R) over the last two years has
made imports increasingly expensive, giving customers an
incentive to source material domestically.
Even if the Russian soda ash market continues to shrink at
the rate it did last year, the decline will be less than the
potential shortfall in production, warned Ivan Dimitrov,
manager of soda ash distributor, SoyuzChimPostavka.
"The reduction in demand probably will take place within the
coming years, but it will not be comparable with the amount the
market will lose if BSK goes bankrupt," he said. "If this
happens, the consequences would be quite significant, as the
market will probably have to return to some import supplies. In
that case, the prices of soda ash may rise by as much as
30-40%," Dimitrov explained. He doubted whether a company of
BSK’s size and significance would be
to fail, however, he pointed out that, given
Russia’s current economic situation, nothing
Down the hatch: Russia’s
vodka industry has been a steady source of demand for
container glass, one of the main markets for soda ash.
Tougher laws aimed at limiting alcohol consumption in
the country have put a brake on this sector, however
Soda ash from nepheline
When Soviet researchers were investigating the production of
soda ash from nepheline in the 1980s and 1990s, it was
suggested that the technology could supply 30-50% of
Russia’s soda ash needs within two decades.
Despite the collapse of the Soviet regime and its resource
ambitions, the nepheline soda ash project was not abandoned,
and scientists of the Russian National Aluminium-Magnesium
Institute have continued their research into commercialising
the technology, which is currently not used on an industrial
scale anywhere else in the world.
"During the complex processing, the nepheline ores are
sintered to produce alumina, calcined potash and calcined
soda," explained Mikhail Kolomiets, director of the
intelligence unit and chemicals analysis body, RCC Group.
"After leaching, we are left with a solid residue, known as
white sludge, which can be used to make cement," he said.
"From 4-4.1 tonnes of nepheline and 7.5 tonnes of limestone,
we can extract 1 tonne of alumina, 800kg of soda ash, 300kg of
potash and 10 tonnes of cement. This technology has not been
introduced anywhere outside Russia," he added.
No future outside alumina projects
Russian chemist Anatoly Baranov, a member of the Russian
Academy of Science, believes that given the large stocks of
nepheline ores that occur in Russia’s Murmamsk
Oblast, in future, the country may benefit from developing this
technique of producing soda ash. However, adoption of this plan
is constrained by the fact that it is only really economically
viable for aluminium companies.
"The constant demand for alumina results in an increase in
production of soda ash from nepheline raw material," said
"While more than 75% of Russian soda ash is produced using
the ammonia-soda [Solvay] method, getting soda from nepheline
is more promising, as this is achieved without producing waste
and reduces labour costs per unit of output compared with the
Baranov noted, however, that the nepheline process tends to
result in more impurities in the soda ash, giving a lower
quality end product.
This, combined with its viability being dependent on alumina
production, makes commerical production of soda ash from
nepheline a questionable proposition.
"We have heard about several possible projects for the
development of nepheline-apatite deposits in the Khibin
district of the Kola Peninsula," said Valentin Makhailov, an
independent Russian mining analyst. "There was a suggestion
that some of these projects could produce soda ash. However, it
is necessary to appreciate the major drawback of this
technology – that it cannot be employed to only
produce soda ash. You have to produce the whole range of the
products from nepheline ores."
"AAR don’t hide the fact that they do not
really want to deal with soda ash, but have to produce and sell
it to maintain profitability. The same situation, but reverse,
would apply to any investor wishing to concentrate on soda
ash," Makhailov said. He explained that any company looking to
dispose of alumina as a byproduct would have difficulty in
securing buyers, given the dominance of Rusal in this
Representatives of AAR confirmed that while soda ash is not
their principal interest, the prospect of increased alumina
production capacity at the company will mean a simultaneous
rise in soda ash output, although this will require investment
in expanding the part of the plant used to handle the
At the moment, AAR does not have the funds to expand its
capacity and Rusal has been hit financially by the falling
price of aluminium. As part of its plan to increase
self-sufficiency in raw materials, the company is prioritising
the development of its overseas assets in Africa and South
The company has meanwhile been embroiled in a number of
environmental disputes. Last year, it was fined R408m ($8m*)
after it was prosecuted for allowing effluent from the refinery
to pollute surrounding agricultural land.
Experts have suggested that AAR will not be able to grow its
production capacity for a number of years, unless there is a
significant recovery in the global price of aluminium. As a
result, soda ash output from the company will not increase
either and it seems unlikely that any other businesses will
adopt the technology in the near future, given the marginal
profitability of the nepheline process.
*Conversions made February 2016