Revolutions in agriculture over the last 50 years have
rapidly changed the way crops are produced, increasing yields,
reducing water consumption and improving profitability.
Further up the value chain, however, methods for producing
fertilizer minerals such as potash have barely altered in
Unlike other types of mineral, the world is not close to
running out of easily accessible deposits of potash, so there
has been little incentive to rethink how to get these minerals
out of the ground.
In its Fertlizer Outlook 2018-2022, the
International Fertilizer Association (IFA) says: "Thanks to
sustained capacity expansions since 2010, global [fertilizer
mineral] supply will be more than sufficient to meet global
demand during the next five years."
"Capacity [will] increase in the three main fertilizer
segments, but more rapid growth is expected for potash... than
for phosphoric acid... or ammonia," the IFA adds.
In Canada, the largest producer of potash in the world,
there is "no imminent shortage" of reachable deposits,
according to Stephen Jasinski, mineral commodity specialist for
phosphate rock and potash at the US Geological Survey
Similarly, other top potash producing jurisdictions,
including Russia, Belarus, China and Germany have ample
untapped reserves and the USGS expects new mines to come online
in these countries, as well as Spain, within the next few
Total potash production is anticipated to hit 62 million
tonnes this year, rising to 64.6 million tonnes by 2022, IFA
Steadily rising demand is expected to keep prices firm and
the risk of oversupply at bay, with the majority of potash
output controlled by a handful of large companies that exercise
strict supply discipline.
"I think the industry is in a prolonged steady state,"
explains Maurice Dusseault, professor of geological engineering
at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
"Of course there have been acquisitions and sales - the
collapse of the Belarusian Potash Company in 2013, the sale of
Vale’s fertilizer mineral business to Mosaic in
2016, and the merger of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan and
Agrium in 2018 to form Nutrien, being obvious examples of
recent major shake-ups."
"But as far as the way the industry operates from a
technical perspective goes, I don’t see any major
changes on the horizon," Dusseault adds.
Yet despite this lack of fervor for change, there have been
murmurs of concern from the fringes of the industry about the
lack of innovation in the sector, which has resulted scant
productivity gains, while water and energy usage at mines
remains high and the footprint of most operations continues to
Progress for potash’s sake
According to Dusseault, there are good reasons why potash
mining has not witnessed some of the technological advances or
significant improvements in productivity seen in other mineral
"In terms of the evolution of the potash industry in the
last 20 years, with more monitoring and analysis etc., they
have somewhat increased the extraction ratio [up to the
high-30% range], so they are operating at a ratio that is maybe
5% higher than they were in the 1990s," he explains.
"But most experts believe that if you start pushing the
extraction ratio up towards 45%, you are asking for
Potash is a high-volume, low-value mineral (prices were
around $390 per tonne in early June 2019) and there is little
economic need to extract every last scrap of saleable mineral
from a deposit, if it is expensive or difficult to do
It is also not worth compromising the integrity of the mine
or safety of its workers for the sake of a few extra
"An issue in a big mine - some are 80 sq km underground - is
that if you have a big flood, it might just ruin the whole
mine. So you have to be a bit conservative in your approach,"
"It’s probably better to have an extraction rate
of 38% and reduce the chance of flooding to a very small
number, than go up to 45% when the risk of flooding is
higher," he says.
Potash mining, like most underground mining activities,
carries a number of risks and the industry has a significant,
although not abnormally high, fatality rate.
Last year, nine people were killed during a fire at the
Solikamsk mine operated by Russian miner Uralkali in
Russia’s Perm region; at least two people died
following a roof collapse at the Belaruskali mine in Belarus;
there were three deaths caused by electrocution at Intrepid
Potash’s solar evaporation mine near Moab, in
Utah, United States; and several mine workers were seriously
injured following incidents at mines in the US, United Kingdom
and Canada in 2018.
Generally, however, the industry has managed to avoid major
accidents, fatal and otherwise, in recent years.
Dusseault believes that, after a spate of costly disasters
at potash mines in Saskatchewan, Canada, and other places, this
lack of major incidents in the last two decades has curtailed
any urgency to change mining practices.
"They learned from the lessons of several mine floods in the
1970s and ’80s. One in 1970, the Cominco Mine,
developed a leak along the shaft that flooded the mine. That
mine eventually went back into operation. In 1987,
Patience Lake Mine was lost to flooding and converted to a
solution mining operation for some years," he says.
However, Jasinski argues that the potash sector has at least
kept pace with innovations in mining practices, even if the
industry is not leading the innovation charge itself.
"There has been improved 3D modelling of deposits to reduce
losses and maximize ore removal, as well as improvements to
ore processing to reduce water usage and increase efficiency,
and increased automation [which puts fewer workers at risk],"
Jasinski also points to the potash industry’s
adoption of better mining technology and equipment, mine safety
improvements and increased preventive maintenance, which he
believes have kept the sector abreast of developing best
|Aerial shot of the Woodsmith mine service shaft (at
Innovation where necessary
Because the majority of fertilizer mineral mining takes
place in large and sparsely populated regions in the
Commonwealth of Independent States and North America, there has
been little need to minimize the footprint of mining
In Russia’s Perm region, chemical pollution to
water and soil and sink holes caused by underground mining
operations have been reported in some areas, while even
responsibly managed mines in other parts of the world have
seriously impacted habitats and the landscape of their
Projects in environmentally sensitive areas or close to
settlements have generally been avoided by the potash industry,
as unnecessarily disruptive developments when they can build
But opportunities to produce other kinds of comparatively
rare and valuable fertilizer minerals in more contentious areas
have encouraged some companies to think more innovatively about
In Yorkshire, north-east UK, Sirius Mineral plc is
developing the Woodsmith polyhalite mine near the seaside
tourist and fishing town of Whitby.
Situated in the North York Moors National Park, Woodsmith
has attracted some opposition from campaign groups, who
complained that the landscape, natural habitats and the lives
of local people would be harmed by the mine’s
development and that this would have a knock-on negative effect
on tourism in the area.
But Sirius has managed to steer the project through the
various objections, largely by designing its way around issues
of concern, and has gained the approvals necessary to build
what is ultimately intended to be a 20 million tonne per year
Because Sirius will be extracting polyhalite, rather than
sylvite - the mineral that traditional muriate of potash (MOP)
comes from - the Woodsmith mineral ore also contains sulphur,
magnesium and calcium and the resource has a grade of 85.4%, so
there is no need to remove any impurities to use it on crops, a
step required for MOP.
This means that Sirius expects to operate at a 1:1
mining/saleable material ratio, reducing the amount of waste
while producing a more environmentally friendly product with
the benefit of additional nutrients, as well as potassium.
Once completed, the Woodsmith mine will be 1,500m below the
surface - significantly deeper than most potash mines around
the world, which do not extend much more than 1,000m
underground, although significantly shallower than some of the
world’s deep gold mines.
"We’re deep, but the configuration of the
strata means we are not anticipating any technical issues,"
explains Graham Clarke, Sirius’ operations
director who is currently in charge of site construction at
Although Sirius’ project is ambitious, and
involves transporting ore 36.5km along a tunnel which runs from
a starting point 350m underground to a materials handling
facility and harbor at Teesside, on the North Sea coast, Clarke
is keen to stress that the company is not pushing any
boundaries in the mine’s design or planned
"We’re not doing anything that’s
too 'out there’ at this stage. We’ve
taken quite a conservative approach to the mine design," he
The mine itself will be a fairly standard room and pillar
operation. Clarke says that other layouts would have worked,
but the company wanted to minimize the risk profile by sticking
to a tried and tested method.
"We have no different challenges to any mine in the world.
Any underground mine comes with some challenges -
there’s nothing different about what
we’re doing," he says.
Another option that has been tested by other mining
companies as a less environmentally damaging method of potash
extraction is solution mining.
Developed mid-1960s, this method allows the recovery of
potash found at depths too deep for conventional mining. It
involves injecting a solution into the deposit and extracting a
heated, saturated brine, which is then run through evaporators
and crystallizers to produce a dry product.
Over time, crystallization cooling pond techniques have
evolved to provide a parallel, less expensive method to recover
potash and other advances in the solution method have also been
Saskatoon, Canada-based Gensource Potash Corp, is developing
an existing concept (also developed in the 1960s) for what it
says is a sustainable form of solution potash mining - known as
"Current potash production methods - conventional underground
mining and conventional solution mining - were developed in
the early to mid-1900s and no longer represent the most
capital-efficient and environmental efficient way to produce
potash," the company states.
Selective dissolution involves injecting a nearly saturated
sodium chloride (NaCl) brine, utilizing brackish formation
water (ie, water that is more saline than freshwater and is
therefore not drinkable) into horizontal caverns.
During this process, only the KCl (potash) is dissolved,
leaving other minerals intact.
The KCl-rich brine is then pumped to a process plant, where
an energy-efficient cooling crystallization process removes
the KCl, resulting in solid crystals of potassium
The remaining NaCl brine is returned to the horizontal
caverns, where the cycle is repeated, creating a "closed-loop"
"Gensource is not inventing selective dissolution, and the
concept has been discussed as being an optimal approach since
1967," the company explains.
"Selective dissolution of potash has been successfully
deployed at Intrepid Potash’s Cane Creek Mine
[in Moab] since 2002. Therefore, Gensource is not reinventing
the wheel; we are just perfecting it for Saskatchewan."
There is an argument that, in order to really revolutionize
the way potash is mined, the wheel does need to be reinvented
to some extent - in a place with no legacy of traditional
India, one of the world’s largest consumers of
potash, currently imports 100% (around 4.6 million tonnes in
the 2017/2018 financial year, according to customs data) of the
fertilizer mineral it uses, having no domestic production.
Its buying power means that Indian demand is a significant
determinant of global potash prices and both established and
pending exporters of potash rely on the
subcontinent’s need for fertilizer to support the
There are however some who think India should develop its
own potash industry and reduce the country’s
reliance on imports - a situation which presents a major food
security issue when it comes to feeding India’s
population of 1.3 billion people.
JK Mohnot, chief scientist at the CSIR-Central Institute of
Mining & Fuel Research in Roorkee, Uttarakhand, northern
India, believes that there are "huge investment opportunities"
for potash mining in India.
"The Geological Survey of India (GSI) identified
deep-seated, vast reserves of potash mineralization in
Rajasthan during its 1974-82 exploration work," Mohnot
"The probable and possible reserves of potash over an area
of approximately 5,000 square kilometers in the
Nagaur-Ganganagar basin in northwest Rajasthan is over 20
billion tonnes, with potash content ranging from 8% to 24%," he
says, adding that "in Germany, they mine potash deposits with
grades of between 8% and 16%".
Mohnot believes that with appropriate investment and
technology, Indian potash production could be in the millions
of tonnes per year.
But a lack of accuracy of grade determination for
Rajasthan’s potash has been one of the barriers to
investment in developing the deposits, according to Mohnot,
whose research suggests that both conventional underground and
solution mining would be viable options for local potash
Another barrier is Indian bureaucracy, with applications for
prospecting and mining governments getting stuck in government
departments for years at a time.
The IFA is not seemingly optimistic about the establishment
of Indian potash mining in the near future, however,
forecasting negligible production of 65,000 tonnes per annum
across the South Asian region as a whole over the next few
years - a long way from the millions of tonnes Mohnot believes
India could produce.
Mohnot is, however, hopeful that the recently re-elected
prime minister Narendra Modi’s 'Made in
India’ policy will support plans for domestic
potash mining. He also claims to have the support of
institutional Indian investors, who will help fund
exploration and production projects.
If India did succeed in developing potash mines, this would
reset the global potash trade by taking one of the
world’s largest buyers partly or totally out of
In the meantime, without any prospect of seismic shifts in
the market the foreseeable future, it looks like business as
usual for the potash sector, with conservative mining
approaches and dominant suppliers determining the direction of
QIA takes stake in Sirius Minerals
In May 2019, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, the
Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), was revealed to have taken a
3.3% stake in London-listed Sirius Minerals.
Sirius is raising money to fund the development of the
Woodsmith mine and QIA is believed to have acquired its stake
via a $425 million share issue in April this year.
Better known for its investment in trophy UK real estate
assets such as luxury store Harrods and the prestigious office
and leisure skyscraper, the Shard, both of which are in London,
QIA’s decision to invest in a relatively high-risk
mining project more than 400km away from the capital has raised
QIA could not be reached for comment on its decision to
invest in Sirius, and the mining company declined to discuss
Aymen Khoury, a partner and Middle East expert at
London-based law firm Fieldfisher, said that sovereign wealth
fund’s stake in Sirius reflects a broader shift
in QIA’s investment strategy.
"At the Doha Forum in December 2018, Qatar made it clear
that it was looking to up its overseas investments and
diversify. This means moving away from traditional real estate
and financial services," Khoury said.
He also suggested that QIA’s investment in a
polyhalite mine might be geared towards compensating for lost
fertilizer imports from Qatar’s Gulf
"The [Gulf Go-operation Council] region is already a major
producer of fertilizer. The regional blockade [by Saudi Arabia,
United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, which has been in
place since June 2017] accelerated Qatar’s
diversification plans, and presented the country with an
opportunity to transform its farming industry to bring food
"Investment and involvement in companies such as Sirius
presents an opportunity to develop new markets and raise
Qatar’s global standing in an already strong
sector, by helping develop new premium, more environmentally
friendly products," Khoury added.
Potash deposits in India
In north-west Rajasthan, halite belts have been identified
in the local geology.
To date, about 6 trillion tonnes of halite containing about
80% NaCl has been estimated by GSI over an area of 40,000sq km
in the Nagaur-Ganganagar basin, at depths of between 300m and
900m below the surface.
The exploration and grade estimation of potash deposits is a
difficult task, as it occurs mostly in the form of highly
It is possible that high grade potash deposits exist at
shallow depths of 350m in the Kalu and Jaitpura areas of
The Jaitpura area is however unsuitable for potash mining
development, due to the lack of water supply and difficult
Indian potash reserves are also found in saltpetre and
glauconite deposits in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and
Source: Adapted from "Status of Import Substitute Potash
Reserves and Innovative Technology for Deep Seated Mining in
India", authored by J K Mohnot and P K Singh, presented at
the International Conference on NexGen Technologies for
Mining and Fuel Industries (NxGnMiFu-2017) Organized by
CSIR-CIMFR, at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi, 15-17 February,
2017, (Vol.-I, pp. 19-28).