March 24, 2011

A glance at Saskatchewan Potash mining

Saskatchewan might not at first seem like a province that can build itself up as a preeminent world-class supplier of any resource. The population is only 1 million, spread out over a large area, and the climate has inhospitable extremes in the summer and winter. Yet Saskatchewan has built itself up as a leading supplier of a rare-earth salt called potash. Potash is essentially a water-soluble potassium-rich mineral that is often combined with chloride or carbonate, and it has coalesced in abundance underneath the sedimentary platform that defines the geology of Saskatchewan's prairie-lands. The industrial heart of the province has utilized this abundance to strike at rich in a world market where potash is an excellent & cost effective fertilizer for crops, and markets in India, China and Brazil have made it lucrative for the monopoly that Potash Corp. has created.

Why is Saskatchewan so rich in potash? 

That question can be answered by looking at the historical geology of the province. During the Devonian period 390 million years ago, southern Saskatchewan was inundated by a restricted inland sea. The equator was also located close to the province, thus the conditions were ripe for evaporation of water in the ancient sea, and thus the leftover mineral content collected and formed what are called evaporite beds. These beds were subsequently covered by later horizontal sedimentary deposits. The capping layers were not too thick, on the order of a thousand meters, thus drilling and mining access to the potash using modern techniques is cost & technically feasible.
World potash reserves, top ten states (left); cross-section of Saskatchewan strata with sylvinite beds (right)
Types and uses of Potash

Potash occurs when Potassium binds with another compound or element to produce a salt. Such compounds include Potassium Chloride (KCl), Potassium Sulphate (K2SO4), Potassium Carbonate (K2CO3), and Potassium nitrate (KNO3), all of which have varying uses and grades of quality. Potash has general uses as a bleaching agent, a soap, and a de-icer, and technological uses in computer screens, but the majority industrial use of the compound is as a fertilizer of plant crops. The variations of potash mentioned above are all effective as fertilizers, because plants soak up the nutrients provided by potash when they are dispersed and allowed to percolate into the soil (after being soaked by irrigation). Potash's water-solubility allows this to occur effortlessly, and thus crops will soak up the nutrient content as they soak up water.

Not many countries produce and export commercial-grade potash, and Canada is by far #1 among the ones that do. Importers tend to be heavily populated countries that rely on extensive agriculture to feed their people.

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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Er...except that Saskatchewan's potash deposits are in the Prairie Evaporite Formation of the Elk Point Group, which is Middle Devonian, not Jurassic. See, for example, http://www.er.gov.sk.ca/adx/aspx/adxGetMedia.aspx?DocID=5815,3538,3385,5460,2936,Documents&MediaID=26934&Filename=Saskatchewan+Potash.pdf

You're right about the Jurassic inland sea, but it deposited clastics and carbonates, not evaporites; the Jurassic rocks produce oil in the SW part of the province (e.g. around Shaunavon & Eastend).

Maybe you were just checking to see if we were awake out here? ;-)

Cheers,
--Howard

Malcolm V L said...

Thanks for clearing that up, Howard. Need to slap myself for relying on environmental websites for the historical facts. I'll make the corrections after taking a look.

Mining Man said...

Saskatchewan is at least afforded stability by the potash industry, but I certainly agree that diversification is needed if we're to experience any significant and permanent growth.