The world’s population is growing, getting
richer and increasingly opting for meat-rich diets –
factors which are pushing up demand for fertilisers. While this
worn cliché, trotted out by many in the agriminerals
industry, has its basis in truth, in reality, these variables
are not new and have long been factored into the business plans
of the industry’s majors.
Enthusiastic gesturing towards demographics and shifting
preferences therefore mean relatively little for the
sector’s bottom line.
Steve Hansen at investment firm Raymond James recently told
the UK’s Financial Times that "global
fertiliser fundamentals remain broadly anaemic, with few
encouraging pricing signals".
Speaking about the crop nutrients, potash, phosphate and
nitrogen, Canada-based Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc.
(PotashCorp) said in its full year 2015 results, released in
late January, that it retains a "cautious outlook" for all
three commodities. The company’s net profit fell
by just over 51% year-on-year (y-o-y) in 2015, primarily owing
to low market prices for the minerals it produces. Other
producers look set to report annual earnings outlining similar
Market analysis firm Integer Research was slightly less
pessimistic than some in its most recent fertiliser market
summaries, noting that in potash, demand actually remained firm
y-o-y at 59m tonnes muriate of potash (MOP) last year,
according to its estimates. Prices, however, continued at their
lowest levels for around a decade.
Describing phosphate buying from key markets as
"disappointing", particularly for India, Integer said that
stocks were full in 2015 from earlier buying, totalling around
1m tonnes by October, pulling down demand.
Citrus fruit affected by greening
US Department of Agriculture, via
Despite subdued demand, supply control measures that are
expected to have a positive effect on the market balance are
finally being put in place by the industry. The Investec
"mining clock", which describes the various events that occur
during a boom and bust cycle, notes that dividend cuts are key
to realignment and deleveraging in the mining
PotashCorp’s latest earnings release informed
investors that it would slash its dividend payments by 34% to
Canadian dollar (C$) $0.25/share ($0.18/share*), an
announcement made all the more significant because this is the
first time PotashCorp has cut its dividend in 27 years as a
publicly listed entity.
More recently, the company mothballed its Picadilly potash
mine in New Brunswick after only around a year of active
production, resulting in the loss of 420 jobs and suspending
1.8m tonnes of production capacity, saving PotashCorp around
C$50m in 2016 capex costs and C$135m across 2017 and 2018.
Adult Asian citrus psyllid, Diaphorina
citri, (2-3 millimeters long) on a young citrus leaf.
David Hall, US Department of
"This announcement highlights the pain being felt in the
potash sector globally," Investec said at the time, adding that
it seems very unlikely that Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP
Billiton will bring its large-scale Jansen project in
Saskatchewan online any time in the foreseeable future.
Production cuts are also being pursued elsewhere. One year
on from the flooding and consequent suspension of leading
supplier Uralkali OAO’s Solikamsk II mine in
Russia, a closure which knocked out a fifth of the
company’s potash capacity but had no effect on
global prices, Uralkali has made no attempt to salvage the
In the last quarter of 2015, US-based Mosaic Co. axed 46
staff its Colonsay, Saskatchewan mine and extended planned
maintenance work downtime, keeping supply offline. Its
phosphate segment is also running at well below capacity.
Tel-Aviv-headquartered Israel Chemicals Ltd (ICL) said in
its full year 2015 earnings statement in February that it
anticipated a more balanced potash market in the second half of
this year, based on production cuts from major companies. The
Israeli company did not make any firm commitments to reduce its
own output, but did say that it plans to transition from the
production of potash to polysulphate at its Cleveland operation
in the UK – a shift that will see the loss of 330
EuroChem’s Kovdorskiy mine
and processing facility in the Kola peninsula, Russia.
James Sean Dickson, via
While the bulk commodities market is suffering, there is no
shortage of strategies for ensuring continued strong business
performance among the world’s fertiliser mineral
producers – most of which have been through punishing
industry cycles in the past.
One approach is identifying smaller, higher growth markets
and targeting them with new products. HJ Baker & Bro.
Inc.’s subsidiary, Tiger-Sul, recently released
its Tiger Greening Guard-branded fertiliser – a blend
aimed solely at the citrus fruit industry.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, US orange
production, traditionally associated with the state of Florida,
is forecast to be 4.8m tonnes for the 2015/2016 season, down
nearly half on the 8.1m tonnes produced in the 2010/2011
season, thanks to a combination of adverse growing
HJ Baker’s Greening Guard fertiliser,
introduced in November 2015, is specifically targeted at
farmers affected by citrus greening disease, a bacterial
infection spread by several species of the psyllid insect and
one of the chief causes of the drop in crop tonnages. As well
as giving fruit a green hue, as the name suggests, citrus
greening, which is also known as Yellow Dragon Disease, can
result in defoliation, stunted growth, plant death and bitter
flavoured, irregularly shaped fruits that drop off the tree
early, according to the US’ Food and Fertilizer
Pesticides can be used to control psyllid populations, but
according to Usman Khalid, marketing manager at HJ Baker,
Greening Guard is one of the best performing and cost-effective
options for counteracting the disease.
The sulphur-heavy (64% sulphur, 3% iron, 7% manganese and 7%
zinc) blend "limits tree vulnerability by boosting and
strengthening the tree’s immune system", Khalid
told IM. "It also increases feeder root
density for optimal nutrient uptake, which allows for healthier
fruit and reduced fruit drop," he said. HJ Baker noted last
year that citrus greening can reduce root functionality by as
much as 50-80%.
Khalid added that the product reduces stress on the plant by
lowering the surrounding soil pH and that Greening
Guard’s controlled release property optimises
uptake by delivering nutrients over time, rather than in a
burst upon application.
The company sees its key markets for Greening Guard as
Florida (which is currently the biggest consumer) and
California, which together account for the vast majority of the
citrus crop acreage of the US, in addition to smaller
opportunities in Texas and Arizona. "We are also targeting
several global markets where citrus greening is a major
problem," Khalid added.
As part of its effort to sharpen its strategy, Khalid said
that Tiger-Sul is continuously investing in R&D and
improving product formulation with modified ingredients to
target the various issues facing the agriculture
Products for effectively delivering micronutrients to crops
are seen as a significant opportunity for companies in the
fertiliser industry. ArrMaz Custom Chemicals Inc., a supplier
of processing solutions to a variety of mining and industrial
minerals companies, told IM that the addition
of micronutrients to bulk phosphate fertiliser as a value
enhancer is a recent trend.
The company notes that this can make granulation more
difficult, however, requiring process additives such blending
agents, granulation aids, dust controllers and anti-caking
Particle segregation is also less easy following
micronutrient loading, because the different particle sizes,
densities and shapes affect the even application of a
fertiliser mixture, owing to the tendency of non-uniform
particles to differentiate during transit and storage.
According to ArrMaz, its Microstickers-branded product can
stabilise stored fertilisers for up to 90 days.
Another business strategy in the tough bulk fertiliser
market is optimisation. This can stretch through from mining to
beneficiation processes, to yield higher value products and
ArrMaz told IM that, in the case of
phosphate, higher grades and recovery rates result in cost
advantages across the processing chain, in addition to a number
of tangible environmental benefits.
Obtaining higher grades and recovery result in smaller areas
of mining, lowering permitting and land retention costs. Mine
reserves last longer, taxes can become less punitive and
shipping costs can be reduced, ArrMaz said. For phosphate, as
with many other minerals, higher grade feedstock can open up
more processing routes towards more valuable end products, such
as phosphoric acid.
Zug, Switzerland-headquartered EuroChem AG told
IM: "All coefficients and ratios –
such as output, acid concentration (which is key to ensure
final product quality), raw material consumption rates, energy
consumption and other vital parts of the production process
– to a large extent depend on phosphate rock
This can be defined by the phosphate
(P2O5)/calcium oxide (CaO) ratio and the
impurity content of the rock, where impurities include:
aluminium (Al2O3), iron
(Fe2O3), magnesium (MgO), fluorine (F),
silicon (Si), sodium (Na), potassium (K) and assorted organic
Excess silicon, for example, will result in abrasion and
erosion in the processing plant, reducing its lifespan and
filtering efficiency while increasing waste volumes. Carbonate,
meanwhile, can result in higher required sulphuric acid and
defoaming reagent volumes, according to ArrMaz.
EuroChem said that the normal approach is to qualify
phosphate rock raw material according to its minor element
ratio (MER) coefficient, where MER =
((Al2O3 + Fe2O3 +
MgO)/P2O5). As a general rule, production
processes can be worthwhile and economically viable if the MER
indicator ratio remains lower than 0.12.
Kovdorskiy, EuroChem’s iron ore-apatite
phosphate mine in the Kola peninsula, northwest Russia,
produces phosphate feedstock with a MER of 0.05-0.08; while at
the recently opened Kok-Jon phosphate mine in the Jambyl region
of Kazakhstan, the MER ratio ranges from 0.09-0.1, EuroChem
Todd Parker, industrial marketing manager at ArrMaz, listed
the 10 most important rules that must be followed in a
beneficiation plant to result in higher quality end products at
minimal expense, as:
1 Avoid ore dilution – keep the feed clean of
overburden and other contamination
2 Liberate the feed as needed, creating as few fines as
3 Wash the ore and remove clays
4 Size the feed well for floatation sections or
5 Float similarly sized feeds together
6 Use the cleanest water for conditioning and floatation
7 Condition feed at the right solids and at the right pH
8 Use the right amount of reagents, water and air
9 Employ smooth, non-turbulent floatation
10 Feed the plant at stable rates
"These rules may seem rudimentary in nature but often
getting back to the basics of mineral processing will help
improve grade and recovery, which is generally a balancing act
– improving one is usually achieved at the detriment
of the other," Parker told IM.
ArrMaz process consultation –
examining froth characteristics for maximum
At its Kovdorskiy mine, EuroChem explained that while
reducing the Mg content of the feedstock is a requirement, as
its presence lowers slurry velocities and thus reduces
filtering ability, Mg also adds value to the end product as a
He also noted the difficulty of shifting a
plant’s feedstock from one source of phosphate
rock to another – or, as is the case at
EuroChem’s Belorechenskie Minudobrenia (BMU) plant
in southern Russia, having two separate phosphate
"To feed our fertiliser operations there, we use both
apatite concentrate from Kovdorskiy and a fine rock phosphate
flour imported from Kazakhstan. While changing phosphate rock
sources can be challenging, due to equipment configuration and
calibration, the results of exhaustive testing and the use of
the first rock shipments as feedstock have generated positive
results with a quality fertiliser product," EuroChem said.
Different sources of rock, divergent flowsheets and various
reagents must also be balanced against each other to yield the
best end products.
"While there is no universal reagent scheme and flowsheet
design, each directly influences the other. Therefore
operations designed with a marriage of flowsheet, equipment
selection and reagent formulation creates the best value for
the miner," ArrMaz’s Parker said.
ArrMaz told IM that it develops reagent
schemes and flowsheet designs for customer-specific phosphate
ores to recover greater volumes of higher grade phosphate,
while consuming less energy and fewer resources.
"We provide a complete technical service package that
includes laboratory evaluations of flowsheets and reagents as
well as process consultations on existing operations and custom
formulated reagents to improve recovery and grade for phosphate
processing operations," the company said.
One key factor in processing is the recovery of fine
fractions. According to ArrMaz, this can both significantly
improve operational economies and reduce the need for clay and
"However, handling and recovering finer phosphate fractions
can create a balancing act between overall recovery and
conditioning/flotation efficiency," ArrMaz said. "Often, clays
interfere with the flotation process, driving costs up and
challenging the recovery of other size fractions. In this case,
reagent selection is key."
The company markets its CustoFloat and CustAmine reagents
for this purpose, both of which were formulated to handle clays
and multiple-sized feed fractions.
"These reagents have recently found success for carbonate
and silica rejection in clay-laden feeds, while maximising
grade and recovery," ArrMaz said.
Phosphate fertiliser granules improved
through anti-caking test runs and the addition
of specific coatings and colourings.
Phosphoric acid is itself still a feedstock, largely for
diammonium phosphate (DAP) and monoammonium phosphate (MAP)
EuroChem told IM that product consistency
is especially important for phosphate products over other
fertilisers because their markets demand specific
characteristics, including granule size and colour.
"All of our plants, whether at BMU, Kingisepp, or Lifosa,
have undergone and benefit from investments targeting the
stabilisation of product granulometry and the physical and
mechanical properties of the product," EuroChem said. "Ongoing
investments are being made to enhance granulation with various
surface treatments such as conditioning additives, anti-caking
material and so on."
At EuroChem’s Nevinnomysskiy Azot facility, the
company has recently introduced several new
nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) formulae (19:4:19, 15:24:16
and 10:26:26). These were rolled out together with additional
granulometry stabilisation measures to improve overall product
quality, EuroChem said.
"More importantly, the equipment upgrades now ensure a
maximum conversion rate for potassium chloride and ammonium
nitrate, which makes for non-caking mechanically stable
products, meaning a more consistent and reliable product for
the farmers," the company added.
Granulation is improved by having a purer phosphoric acid
feedstock, according to ArrMaz, yielding not just higher
grades, but also a greater hardness and more consistent size
and solubility properties.
"The goal is to make the strongest and most uniform size
granule, while meeting all analytical requirements without over
formulation," ArrMaz said. "The lower the phosphoric acid
impurities the easier it is to make consistent phosphoric acid
and as the granulation plant is fed consistent, high grade
acid, the better the granulator runs. The better the granulator
runs, the higher the production without the need to recycle
Higher quality granules are easier to store, handle and
ship, the company added.
|A large farm in northwest Minnesota, US,
pictured in false colours (left) and natural
colours using only a visible spectrum signal (right).
Crop foliage, which strongly reflects
near-infrared light, is seen as a bright red in the left
image, with darker patches likely
caused by healthy crops with dense leaf coverage, while
yellow identifies infested
crops and brown indicates unwanted pesticides landing on
the farm’s organic crops.
The sci-fi future of agriculture
Looking even further ahead, precision application of
specific fertiliser blends directed by drone surveying could be
one of the most important future developments in
Drone technology has largely received attention for its
potential as a tool for policing and spying, but opinion is
growing in agricultural circles that unmanned aerial vehicles
(UAVs) could play a role in the future of precision farming
Khalid told IM that HJ Baker considers that
UAVs could be used for scouting, video capturing and field
surveys in agriculture, predicting that their use is set to
"grow tremendously" in the coming years. EuroChem said that
sensor drones "appear poised to play an increasingly crucial
role in modern agriculture".
According to EuroChem, aerial support drones can help track
and assess crop growth, reduce nutrient waste and increase
yields – "representing another step towards
Khalid agrees: "As production agriculture enters an era of
uncertain commodity prices and profitability, precision
agriculture will help the farmer apply products more
While remote sensing by satellite has been used in
agriculture for many years, both the spectral and spatial
resolution of surveying can be increased by using near-surface
drones, in addition to eliminating downtime caused by
"Remote sensing is already an established method of
monitoring crop status. While satellite programmes, such as the
European Earth observation programme, Copernicus (previously
known as GMES), are in place, the drones provide for a far more
flexible proposition," EuroChem said.
By using sensor data to identify where fertiliser has
– and has not – been applied, in addition to
assessing foliage density, farmers can adjust application rates
to target areas showing deficiency in nutrient content and crop
"Big data and aerial collection of data will be very
critical," Khalid said. "Integration of UAVs and satellite
imagery linked with yield monitors and field maps is where the
industry will move."
Sensing the future
The proliferation of drones in agriculture has grown as the
technology has become more compact and manoeuvrable and less
The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) carried
out UAV trials in Sri Lanka in September 2015. Using
an eBee drone fixed with a near-infrared sensor, the IWMI
recorded positive results that could ultimately see farmers fix
nutrient supply problems before they affect crop growth.
"Using near-infrared, you can identify stress in a plant 10
days before it becomes visible to the eye," Salman Siddiqui,
head of IWMI’s GIS remote sensing and data unit,
told the UK’s Guardian
"When a plant goes into stress, it’s either due
to a water or fertiliser shortage, or because it’s
being attacked by a pest. Photosynthetic activity decreases and
that affects the chlorophyll. That’s what the
near-infrared sensor can detect, but our human eye
can’t see it until it’s more
advanced," he explained.
Siddiqui said that if a crop is being attacked by pests,
UAVs can be used to spot this and prevent the pest spreading to
affect a larger area – from farm to regional
Meanwhile, in Uganda and Tanzania, the International Potato
Center (CIP) has found that sweet potato crop acreages were
being underestimated by around 50% in official statistics. On a
small scale, this can impact local policy-making by reducing
the availability of training, seeds and small-scale insurance
Charities, development agencies and the public sector
– even local farming syndicates – could use
drones in this context to advance agricultural development. "In
developing countries, it’s still the case that
farmers get together and share tractors, so this could be
another area where they pool resources," Siddiqui said.
EuroChem suggested that, coupled with farmer feedback,
drone-collected data could be harnessed to engineer new types
of fertiliser products.
"While a few hurdles remain, including around privacy and
data mining use – for example, who owns the data and
what will it be used for – drones are increasingly
likely to become part of the next global breakthrough in the
quest to increase yields on ever decreasing arable land."
*Conversion made February 2016