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Author Topic: Potash mining- for those who just want some interesting mining reading  (Read 47638 times)
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finch68
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« on: November 16, 2009, 09:39:33 PM »

On a different topic, I said I would be happy to pass along information on the mining of potash in the world.  I worked in potash mining for 38 years mostly as a researcher, although I also spent some time as a Mine manager and computer systems manager.

First I want to congratulate jjbond who insisted on calling it "pot ash".  She is really quite correct.  The name potash came about because back in the old days before underground potash became known, farmers discovered that if they burned wood or seaweed and then put the ashes in a big old iron pot, stuck it over a fire, and leached the ashes with water the resulting solution was really good fertilizer.  This fertilizer became known as pot ash.  Ultimately it got changed to potash.

Chemically potash as it is usually known is potassium chloride.  It is a first cousin to good old table salt or sodium chloride.  In fact potash is always found closely associated with salt.

Potash is a soft rock that is mined by two different methods - conventional shaft mining (go down to the ore body and dig it out), and solution mining (drill a hole to the ore body, inject water, dissolve the ore and pump the potash rich solution out).  Both methods require separation of the potash from the salt when the raw material is on surface.  Conventional shaft mining uses flotation and heavy media separation techniques (sounds like certain gold processing), while solution mining uses evaporation of the water and crystallization of the potash.

In Saskatchewan where I did most of my work potash was discovered by accident in the early 1940's by people drilling for oil.  They managed to drill through a potash ore body, noted it with some small interest and promptly forgot it.  It was re-discovered in the 1950's again by oil drillers.  Interest was generated and the first producing mine came on stream in 1960 from an ore body 1100 meters below the surface.

As i mentioned on the other topic, there are several water-bearing formations between the surface and the ore and the only way to dig a shaft through the water (high pressure, I might add) is to drill holes around the area of the shaft and circulate refrigerant to freeze the water.  Then the shaft is dug through the ice and rock.  When the shaft is through it is cased with steel "tubbing" and sealed to the rock and then the refrigerant is turned off and the ice can thaw back out, but the shaft remains dry.

In Saskatchewan the ore is a mixture of salt and potash with some minor stuff like clay and magnesium salts thrown in.  At Esterhazy, SK the ore seam is 8 feet thick and is about 33% potash and 67% salt.  At Saskatoon, SK the ore is about 11.5 feet thick and is about 28% potash and the rest salt and minor other stuff.  At Belle Plaine, SK (a solution mine where I mostly worked) the ore is 5400 feet below the surface and is about 100 feet thick and is about 28% potash and the rest salt and other stuff.  There is enough recoverable potash in Saskatchewan to supply the world for about 1000 years - not kidding - this is true.


Here are a couple of pictures.  The first is some ore.  The red coulour is from hematite (sound familiar to black sands folk?).  The clear crystals (if you can tell the clear ones) are common salt, and the cloudy ones are potash.



The second is a continuous potash mining machine.  The 4 cutting heads on this machine (looking straight into the cutting heads) are 8 feet in diameter.  This machine can advance about 1 foot per minute into the rock. 



The ore is transported through the machine to a conveyor belt at the rear of the unit and then transported by conveyor to the mine shaft where it is loaded onto 40 tonne "skips" and transported to the surface at a speed of about 3000 feet per minute.  There are two skips on the system, counterbalancing each other.  While the loaded one goes up the shaft the empty one goes down the shaft to get filled with ore.  The entire operation is automated with skips being filled and emptied automatically.  You can move a lot of ore in a short time.

If this topic is of any interest ask your questions.  I have tonnes of photos and can answer most any question you might pose.

finch68
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« Reply #1 on: November 16, 2009, 10:37:44 PM »

Actually Finch it was I Placerpal who took the initiative and encouraged you to post and
educate us about SK potash. Jen in fact tried to chase you off by telling you the forum is
only for prospecting for gold and posts about gold - thank you very much.  Wink

Ref: World's largest Gold Miner says the world's mineable gold supply is running out

Okay we cleared that misunderstanding up.

Thanks for taking me up on my encouragement. Potash has always been a puzzle to me.
It is one of the most important fertilizers needed worldwide but not a lot of common information
is known about it. Your new thread and post are very timely and appreciated.

As Oliver said: "More please"

On the matter of Pot Ash, that is what my great, great grandmother used to make soap 150+ years ago
in SK well above the present potash mines from wood ash and fat. But the Pot Ash from the wood ash
was potassium carbonate K2CO3. It certainly was not KCl potash. Potash in chemistry is really
potassium carbonate. K2CO3. But potash seems to refer to a variety of chemical compounds. KCl, K2O, etc.
Potash - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Okay, so my great, great grandmother used Pot Ash, potassium carbonate to make soap and the
farmers around the world demand and use something called potash. So what is potash?

Is it KCl or KOH? Or some other variant?
If it is KCl what happens to the chlorine element in the soil?
If it is KOH, is the soil made basic or alkaline?
Do the customers have a choice on what type of potash they buy?

And those huge white mountains near the potash mines like Rocanville and Piapot, etc.
that I drove by thousands of times. What are they? Salt, NaCl or potash KCl.

So much to learn and so little time. I am pleased Jen did not chase you away.  Grin

 Smiley
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« Reply #2 on: November 16, 2009, 11:53:12 PM »

Ok ,,,,kids quit fighting.....what the heck are you talking about  Frustrated  so lets keep it to something us non chemistry majors can understand  Huh
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« Reply #3 on: November 17, 2009, 12:28:32 AM »

Just as a side note finch68 I was born in Wilkie Saskatcewan...have you heard of it?
Thats one knarly looking cutter head.
Do you mine this in layers like some of the coal vein extractions.
I somehow did not imagine it would be pink.
Cool photos for us eager folk...we are just trying to get a mental picture of the process.......thanks for that ....more please Good
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« Reply #4 on: November 18, 2009, 08:40:23 PM »

In today's world potash refers usually just refers to potassium chloride.  Potassium is one of the 3 major, essential nutrients that plants need for healthy growth.  The other two are nitrogen and phosphorus.  About 80% of the world's potash production is used for fertilizer.  The rest is used in various chemical processes.  In Canada, Saskatchewan is by far the largest producer.  In fact, on the world scale only Russia comes even remotely close to Saskatchewan for total production, and they are a distant second.  Some other producing areas are Germany, the U.S.A., Brazil, and the Dead Sea area (Israel and Jordan).

Here is a Google picture of the Esterhazy Saskatchewan area showing the Mosaic K1 and K2 mining complex.  While appearing separate on the surface (6 miles apart) these two mines are completely joined underground into a huge maze of tunnels with a total footprint of about 22 miles by 12 miles.



The K1 mine is at the top centre of the picture while the K2 is at the lower right of the picture.  The large white features at each mine are salt tailings piles.  Salt (sodium chloride) is a waste by-product of all potash mining.  Why not sell it you say?  Because there is just too much of it.  Salt is so cheap that you cannot afford to ship it any distance before the freight far outweighs the value of the salt.  The 2 salt piles at K1 and K2 contain a total of about 300 million tons of salt - yep that's 300,000,000 tons of salt.  Every potash mine in the world has a salt tailings pile except for the one remaining in New Brunswick and it simply pumps the waste salt out into the ocean.

Underground in SK potash mines the miners typically use Toyota Land Cruisers to get around.. All motorized equipment underground is diesel powered.  Here is a pic.



With the working face being as much as 12 miles from the shaft it takes quite some time to get the miners to and from the face for shift changes.  Speed limit underground is about 25 km/hr.

Next post I'll show some pics of finished products.

finch68
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« Reply #5 on: November 18, 2009, 10:07:44 PM »

Thanks Finch, very informative. Also explains those huge white mountains scattered around
southern SK. Those white piles were quite valuable for air navigation so they are not totally useless.

Used to use those white piles to find my ground speed when my indicated air speed was 135 knots.
Very often pile to pile was only 65 knots! Strong westerly winds across SK not to mention the
turbulence at 10,000 ft due to green fields inter-spaced with black summer fallow fields and white
mountains!

I'll save more questions until the end of your treatise.

Thanks again.

 Smiley
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« Reply #6 on: November 18, 2009, 11:51:42 PM »

PlacerPal:

I assume your last post means you have (had) a private pilots license.  I did also when I lived in SK.  Used to do a circuit from Regina to the salt pile west at Belle Plaine, north to the salt piles east of Saskatoon, east to the salt piles at Esterhazy or Rocanville, south to the smoke from the coal fired power house at Estevan, and then follow the highway back to Regina.  I've seen wind so strong at altitude that could actually get down to a negative ground speed.  Awesome!

finch68
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« Reply #7 on: November 19, 2009, 12:43:59 AM »

Ok boys you digress...we are watching ang listening ....keep to the topic    Smiley
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« Reply #8 on: November 19, 2009, 07:24:26 AM »

This is an interesting thread since I was just reading an article in the local paper about renewed interest in Potash mining. In fact there seems to be renewed interest in mining a whole range of these 'other' types of minerals as commodities are getting scarcer all over the world and demand is constantly increasing. Even regular old sand and gravel operations are becoming more profitable and I see a lot of the old mines here in my neck of the woods have reopening plans in the works.
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« Reply #9 on: November 19, 2009, 01:49:21 PM »

Someone referred to potash as a commodity.  That is exactly right.  Potash is sold by the tonne instead of by the ounce like gold.  Before the recession/financial meltdown last year potash sold for about $1000 per tonne.  It is currently around $600 per tonne.  Finished product can be various shades of red to pink to pure white.  Chemically the white postash is purer.  But guess what - to a farmer who is going to throw the stuff on the ground as fertilizer the added purity for white doesn't count for anything.  The purest white potash tends to be sold into the chemical business where it is turned into other things (matches, glass, other chemicals, etc).

Instead, potash is sold on the basis of the size of the particles.  The smallest stuff, say smaller than 35 mesh, carries a premium price and is used to make liquid fertilizer because it dissolves very quickly.  Somewhat larger particles, say less than 12 mesh but greater than 35 mesh is lower priced and is used for both solutions and in special mixtures used in small applications like greenhouses, small scale specialty crops and the like.  The largest sized product, say smaller than 4 mesh and greater than 12 mesh is the highest priced and is used for direct application spreaders on farms.

Here is a picture of some of the products.



While potash is mined year round except for a summer shutdown (2-3 weeks) for maintenance, it is primarily shipped for two seasons.  The biggest season is in advance of the spring crop planting season, and then there is a smaller peak for the fall fetilization season.  For the southern hemisphere of course thse two hums are reversed, but the northern hemisphere accounts for by far the greatest consumption of potash.  Because shipping is seasonal, the mines must store great amounts of finished product in the off-peak seasons.  So every potash mine has large warehouses for storage.

Here is a piture of the inside of one.



This pile is probably in the order of 20,000 tonnes, but some warehouses can hold over 100,000 tonnes.

Next installment I will go back underground for some further discussion of ore and mining.

finch68
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