Siilinjärvi mine only source of phosphate ore in Western Europe
Phosphate prices rise as deposits dwindle
The phosphate mine at Siilinjärvi run by Yara Finland is the only source of phosphate ore in Western Europe.
Lorries carrying apatite ore slowly ascend from the bottom of the open pit, which is 220 metres deep, to dump their loads in the preliminary crusher. It is the first stage in a process to separate the mineral from the rock and to refine it into various products, such as phosphate fertiliser and phosphoric acid.
Phosphorus is a vital element for life. Without it plants cannot germinate and people would not grow. Each Finn has an average of half a kilo of phosphorus in their bodies originating from the Siilinjärvi mine. The substance can be found in the teeth, bones, cells, and DNA.
Phosphate is a dwindling natural resource. The known deposits, about 65 billion tonnes, are expected to run out in 370 years, but already now the raw material has become so expensive and hard to extract that production has declined.
Geopolitical tensions are also involved. The biggest users of phosphates, China and the United States, will have exhausted their own reserves in 50 to 60 years, and by the end of the next century nearly 90 per cent of all reserves of phosphates, which are important for the production of food, will be controlled by one country – Morocco.
The Siilinjärvi mine is the only phosphate mine in Western Europe. Each year 22 million tons of rock, half of which is apatite, is extracted each year.
Easily accessible apatite reserves will last for at least 20 years in the mine that is three kilometres long. However, the deposit extends much further – 16 kilometres.
“Ore will be extracted from the mineral as long as it is economically viable to refine it. Now the costs have been optimised so that there will be enough raw material until 2035”, says Teija Kankaanpää, the head of apatite production.
“There are big deposits deeper under the ground. There is apatite at 700 metres”, she says, adding that at some point the profitability of digging deeper will have to be considered.
The phosphoric acid factory uses the apatite as such, and after drying, it can be used in the production of fertiliser. “This is not yet phosphorus that can be used by plants – it still has to be dissolved in acid”, Kankaanpää says.
The importance of phosphorus is growing around the world, and prices are rising. China has reduced its exports in order to make sure that supplies last for the country’s own agriculture. Military strategists are monitoring phosphorus supplies in the way that they keep tabs on the availability of oil and fresh water. The EU published a plan in February to promote the sustainable use of phosphorus.
Finland’s national reserves were sold to Norway in 2007, and the fertiliser giant Yara now controls the phosphate reserves of both Siilinjärvi and Sokli. The Sokli deposit in Savukoski in Finnish Lapland has enough apatite to last 25 to 30 years once a mine becomes operational there.
Consumption of phosphorus is increasing as the world population grows. The world population is expected to exceed ten billion by 2050.
“There is no shortage of demand. If there is none in Finland, we’ll export it. This year we are going for a production record”, says factory director Ismo Haaparanta.
The factory produces half a million tons of fertiliser and 300,000 tons of phosphoric acid a year. The average value of a year’s production is about EUR 250 million.
Haaparanta says that consumption of the fertilisers is growing by about two per cent a year. The price is also rising. “The law of supply and demand applies. Population growth and the increased consumption of meat as living standards improve lead to increased food production.”
Surplus gypsum resulting from the production of phosphoric acid forms a mountain 170 metres high on the edge of the factory area in Siilinjärvi. The pile is surrounded by runoff water pools, where the water, which contains phosphorus, is circulated back into production. Factory director Ismo Haaparanta (left) and logistics chief Ilpo Pyhönen says that only small amounts of phosphorus end up in the local waterway.
After initial crushing, ore stones move on a conveyor to a refinery for further grinding.
Production chief Teija Kankaanpää examines the foamy apatite moving on top of a filter.
Harri Vauhkonen takes a load of fertiliser to his farm.
Phosphorus extracted from apatite needs to be dissolved in acid before it can be used as fertiliser.
Kemira GrowHow to be sold to Norwegian Yara (25.5.2007)
Yara – Siilinjärvi