Potassium is an alkali metal used mainly in the fertilizer industry. The principal use of potash is as an agricultural fertilizer (plant nutrient) because it is a source of soluble potassium, which is one of the three primary plant nutrients required for plant growth and maturation; the others are fixed nitrogen and soluble phosphorus. Potash and phosphorus are mined products, and fixed nitrogen is produced from the atmosphere using industrial processes. Modern agricultural practice uses large amounts of these primary nutrients and additional nutrients, such as boron, calcium, chlorine, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, sulfur, and zinc, to ensure plant health and proper maturation. The three major plant nutrients have no cost-effective substitutes. Low-nutrient-content alternative potash sources, such as animal manure and guano, bone meal, compost, glauconite, and “tankage” from slaughterhouses, are available, but the cost of transportation per metric ton of nutrient beyond relatively short distances can reduce their desirability.
In addition to its use as a fertilizer, potassium chloride is important in industrialized economies, where it is used in aluminum recycling, by the chloralkali industry to produce potassium hydroxide, in metal electroplating, oil-well drilling mud, snow and ice melting, steel heat-treating, and water softening. Potassium hydroxide is used for industrial water treatment and is the precursor of potassium carbonate, several forms of potassium phosphate, many other potassic chemicals, and soap manufacturing. Potassium carbonate is used to produce animal feed supplements, cement, fire extinguishers, food products, photographic chemicals, and textiles. It is also used in brewing beer, pharmaceutical preparations, and as a catalyst for synthetic rubber manufacturing. Generally, these nonfertilizer uses have accounted for about 15% of annual potash consumption in the United States.
Domestic Production and Use: In 2010, the production value of marketable potash, f.o.b. mine, was about $540 million. Potash was produced in Michigan, New Mexico, and Utah. Most of the production was from southeastern New Mexico, where two companies operated three mines. New Mexico sylvinite and langbeinite ores were beneficiated by flotation, dissolution-recrystallization, heavy-media separations, or combinations of these processes, and provided more than 75% of total U.S. producer sales. In Utah, which has three operations, one company extracted underground sylvinite ore by deep-well solution mining. Solar evaporation crystallized the sylvinite ore from the brine solution, and a flotation process separated the potassium chloride (muriate of potash or MOP) from byproduct sodium chloride. Two companies processed surface and subsurface brines by solar evaporation and flotation to produce MOP, potassium sulfate (sulfate of potash or SOP), and byproducts. In Michigan, one company used deep-well solution mining and mechanical evaporation for crystallization of MOP and byproduct sodium chloride.
The fertilizer industry used about 85% of U.S. potash sales, and the chemical industry used the remainder. More than 60% of the produced potash was MOP. Potassium magnesium sulfate (sulfate of potash-magnesia or SOPM) and SOP, which are required by certain crops and soils, also were produced.
Events, Trends, and Issues: In 2009, U.S. production was at its lowest point since 1943, and consumption was at the lowest point since 1962. World production was at its lowest level since 1993. In 2010, world potash markets began to recover after potash sales had collapsed from the combined effects of the world economic downturn, high prices, and weak demand.
The leading U.S. potash producer continued work on converting a closed underground mine into a solution mine. The company anticipated starting operations in late 2012, pending regulatory approvals. Another company planned to complete expansion of its solar evaporation ponds along the Great Salt Lake, Utah, in 2011 to increase production capacity of SOP. North Dakota issued its first potash exploration permit since 1976. The U.S. mining company would use solution mining methods to recover the potash because the deposits in North Dakota are too deep to use conventional underground mining techniques economically.
Plans were in place to increase world production capacity by 28%, from 42.9 million tons in 2010 to 54.7 million tons in 2014, with expansions of existing operations in Canada and Russia and new projects in Argentina, Belarus, Canada, Chile, China, Congo (Brazzaville), and Laos. In 2010, a major international mining company unsuccessfully bid to acquire the leading potash producer in Canada and the world. In November, the international company abandoned its attempt 10 days after the Canadian Government ruled that the sale of the potash company would not be in the best interest of Canada.
World Mine Production and Reserves: Reserves data for the United States, Chile, and Germany were updated using information published by the producers in the respective countries. For Germany, reserves are listed as exploitable reserves by the producing company. Reserves for China and Russia were updated from official Government sources from those countries.
World Resources: Estimated domestic potash resources total about 7 billion tons. Most of these lie at depths between 1,800 and 3,100 meters in a 3,110-square-kilometer area of Montana and North Dakota as an extension of the Williston Basin deposits in Saskatchewan, Canada. The Paradox Basin in Utah contains resources of about 2 billion tons, mostly at depths of more than 1,200 meters. The Holbrook Basin of Arizona contains resources of about 1 billion tons. A large potash resource lies about 2,100 meters under central Michigan. The U.S. reserves figure above includes approximately 40 million tons in central Michigan. Estimated world resources total about 250 billion tons.
Substitutes: There are no substitutes for potassium as an essential plant nutrient and an essential nutritional requirement for animals and humans. Manure and glauconite (greensand) are low-potassium-content sources that can be profitably transported only short distances to the crop fields.
Potash Producers Agrium (NYSE: AGU)
Allana Potash Corp (CVE: AAA) - Danakhil Potash Project in Ethiopia
BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP)
Compass Minerals (NYSE: CMP) - Sulfate of potash
Congo Potash Co
Ethiopian Potash Corp (CVE: FED) - Danakil Development Project
Encanto Potash (CVE: EPO)
IC Potash (CVE: ICP)
Israel Chemicals (TLV: ICL) - http://www.icl-group.com/ Karnalyte Resources (TSE: KRN)
billion tons of potash
K-Mag http://www.kmag.com/ - This division of Mosaic Co. (NYSE: MOS) makes potassium magnesium sulfate fertilizers which are an excellent source of potassium, magnesium, and sulfur.
MagMinerals - Kouiliou Potash Mine in Congo
Rio Tinto - http://www.riotinto.com/ Potash One
Potash Corporation (NYSE: POT)
Potash North Resource Corp.
Passport Potash (CVE: PPI)
Transit Holdings (ASX: TRH) - Paradox Basin project in Utah
Uralkali (LON: URKA)
Western Potash (TSE: WPX) - Russel-Miniota property in Manitoba, Canada contains an estimate 1