Even as the amount of farmland is shrinking, the world’s population has surpassed 8 billion. Improving the yields and nutrition of crops, as well as their ability to withstand drought, is becoming more critical by the day. But fertilizer is in short supply due to a precipitous drop in the availability of potash.
A mineral deposited where oceans evaporated millennia ago, potash contains water-soluble potassium, an essential component of fertilizer. Until this year, nearly 40 percent of the potash on the market was mined in Russia and Belarus — but economic sanctions placed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine also affected its ally Belarus, bringing trading with those countries to an abrupt halt.
Canada has traditionally supplied about a third of the world’s potash, and Barr has been helping clients there ramp up production to mitigate the shortage. In addition, we’re playing a key role in developing a commercial-scale potash mine in Morocco — the first on the African continent.
Not your grandfather’s potash project
Emmerson PLC is advancing the Khemisset project, situated on a potash deposit that will be relatively easy and economical to mine. Unlike most deposits, this one lies close to the surface and has no aquifer above it, making extraction fairly straightforward.
Processing that potash, however, will require a change from commonly used methods due to its mineral content. Ore in the Khemisset basin contains iron and magnesium, and removing those metals will require an extra processing step. In addition, the ore’s complex chemistry requires different approaches to managing brine.
A multi-partner endeavor
When Emmerson was first contemplating the Khemisset project, one of Barr’s longtime potash clients recommended bringing in our process engineers during the feasibility study to complement work being performed by Golder. Barr developed cost estimates, equipment specifications, and facility layouts and drawings for a plant to produce potassium chloride, also known as muriate of potash, which is the most common and affordable variety of the mineral.
In 2021, Emmerson awarded Barr a contract to complete basic engineering for the plant. Our civil, electrical, mechanical, and process engineers analyzed, modeled, and designed each major process and function of the facility. We also collaborated with Moroccan mine-engineering firm Reminex, which is working on mine infrastructure and areas outside the facility.
Exploring the possibilities
Throughout the feasibility study and basic engineering, Barr has been working closely with Emmerson to meet its funding timelines while optimizing design. Our early project work also included conducting tradeoff studies related to process design and high-level costs, which took into account environmental protection — a core focus for Emmerson.
Creating detailed METSIM models allowed us to demonstrate how modifying processes could deliver additional value. From the base models, we developed a series of what-if models to evaluate incorporating a scalable circuit that would produce market-quality sodium chloride for the road de-icing market. The models helped us quickly calculate what corresponding changes would be needed in equipment, budget, and scale of operation.
Emmerson is now finalizing permitting and funding for the project. Construction of the Khemisset plant and mine is expected to begin in 2023, and potash production in 2025.
Moroccan-mined potash will be essential for growing crops in Africa to feed burgeoning populations there and in other parts of the world.
Morocco is already playing a major role in improving food security around the globe, and the Khemisset project is poised to enhance that. Its proximity to seaports on Morocco’s north coast will speed shipping of potash to Europe, the U.S., and Brazil. The biggest beneficiaries, however, are likely to be Morocco itself, which will now have a ready supply of potash to use in manufacturing nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) fertilizers, and other countries in Africa that have historically received meager amounts of fertilizer ingredients.
Of the 10 countries whose populations are projected to grow most rapidly in the coming decades, half are in Africa; the continent also holds the planet’s highest percentage of available arable land. Moroccan-mined potash will be essential for growing crops in Africa to feed burgeoning populations there and in other parts of the world.
Contact us for more information about designing pioneering processes involving minerals and metals.
About the authors
Daniel Palo, PhD, vice president, senior process engineer, has 25 years of experience with process design, plant improvement, and research and development for processes involving minerals, metals, chemicals, fuels, and manufactured products. He leads Barr’s processing practice and assists clients with all phases of projects, from scoping and prefeasibility studies to plant operations and upgrades.
Nick Sosalla, senior minerals processing engineer, has more than 10 years of experience with mineral processing and chemical engineering. He provides design, mass and energy balance calculations, and capital- and operating-expense estimates for mining, mineral-processing, and industrial-manufacturing clients.
Araina Boyd, minerals processing engineer, has experience in both the consulting and mining sectors. She develops preliminary equipment specifications and major-equipment lists; drafts flowsheets; calculates emissions; writes and reviews reports; and coordinates with vendors.