While driving west from Regina, Saskatchewan, along Provincial Route 1 for 30 minutes or so, motorists will notice an impressive-looking facility looming off in the distance. This is the Mosaic Co.‘s Belle Plaine potash processing facility, which sits on approximately 200 acres of land surrounded by some of the world’s largest potash reserves. When it was first built in 1962, the facility represented the largest solution mining operation in the world, producing more than 800,000 short tons of potash per year.
But today’s Belle Plaine operation is much bigger than it was 48 years ago. Pulling into the facility, visitors will notice hundreds of steel girders being mounted, dozens of front-end loaders moving earth and more than 500 construction workers scurrying across the site. The plant is in the midst of a major expansion of its operations — an effort that sometimes confuses even seasoned Mosaic employees.
“This parking lot wasn’t here the last time I visited,” says Sarah Fedorchuk, internal communications specialist, looking for a visitors parking place. “Things here in Belle Plaine are moving pretty fast.”
In reality, the speed of Belle Plaine’s expansion is something of an optical illusion. According to Sam Farris, Belle Plaine expansion manager, potash mining developments at Mosaic tend to be planned out five to six years in advance as a general practice. “Right now, the Belle Plaine expansion is expected to involve three separate stages,” says Farris. “We received the first stage approval in October 2007.”
A Different World
Of course, the world of potash was in a much different place three years ago then it is today. At that time, the agricultural and global economies were booming. Grain prices were at record highs, thanks in part to the growth of corn-based ethanol, and growers were spending plenty of money on crop nutrients such as potash to keep their yields (and profits) high.
But as any agricultural follower knows, these good times all came to a screeching halt during late 2008. Grain prices fell and financially-stung growers virtually halted crop nutrient application work for the remainder of the year.
In 2009, says Norm Beug, senior vice president, potash operations for Mosaic, conditions weren’t much better for crop nutrient suppliers. “There was a major pull-back in crop nutrient use last year,” says Beug. “If I had to characterize how things are for crop nutrients in 2010, I would say we are in recovery, but not fully recovered just yet.” For example, as of March 2010, U.S. potash inventories were reportedly 21% below their five-year average.
Despite this fact — and persistent fears that the general economy could experience a double-digit recession by year’s end — Beug is confident that the future for crop nutrients is bright. “Food demand is still on an upward trend line,” he says. “The world’s population continues to grow, adding some 75 million people per year, and food consumption did not drop off — even during the height of the recession. So from our perspective, the fundamentals of this business are still the same as they were.”
As proof of this view, Beug says all an observer needs to do is look what’s currently happening with potash demand. “Grain prices are going up and this is typically the signal that growers need to make important input decisions,” he says. “Also, China hasn’t upped its potash purchases just yet, but I think that’s going to happen. By 2011, our industry should be back to its normal growth trend line.”
To service this expected demand, Mosaic is in the process of adding capacity to its Belle Plaine operation. As Peter Jackson, general manager, operations at the facility, explains, potash solution mining is a production-intensive process. “In solution mining, you drill bore holes down approximately one mile and pump hot water into the hole to form a cavity,” says Jackson. “This creates a brine which is pumped out of the cavity through a second bore hole and processed in one of two ways to remove the potash from other materials.”
In the first method of extraction, the brine is sent through an evaporation and crystallization process to create the potash crystals from the mined solution. These then leave a crystallizer and are de-watered. They then go to a dryer and compactor before being sent for storage in a warehouse. In the second method, the brine is pumped into a cooling pond just outside the plant. Here, the materials are crystallized naturally and the potash crystals are recovered using a dredge.
For its first stage expansion, the Belle Plaine operation has added a second drilling rig to make bore holes and is constructing an expanded water injection system to produce the heated water at 1,000 psi the plant uses to inject into the mining cavities. There are also four new compactors and a conveyor system for product transportation being built.
“When we are done with this first stage of expansion, the Belle Plaine plant will have significantly more potash production capacity then it currently does,” says Farris. “We will be going from producing 2.55 million short tons today to 3.5 million short tons by 2017.”
The White Stuff
A key characteristic of Belle Plaine’s potash is its color. Unlike traditional potash which is red because of iron impurities, the plant’s production process completely separates the potash crystals from the iron present in the ore body. This results in potash that is white and contains 98% potassium chloride (compared with 95% for red potash).
In 2010, Mosaic began branding this white potash under the tradename Pegasus K62. “Because of its purity level, Pegasus K62 gives users an estimated two more units of potassium per ton than other potash types,” says Beug. “This represents a win-win for our customers because it allows them to do more with less.”
For Belle Plaine’s second stage of expansion, the plant hopes to add to the crystallization process of its operations. “This would help grow our production capacity substantially,” says Farris. “We would be moving from producing 3.5 million short tons of potash to approximately 5 million short tons by 2020.”