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Foskor F oskor, South Africa's only miner of phosphate rock, was set up in the 1950s by the South African Industrial Development Corporation when it felt the need to have an internal supply of raw material for fertilizer rather than having to rely on imports. Phosphates make up the P in every N: P: K: mix found in plant fertilizers. Globally, the biggest source of phosphates comes from fossilised pre- historic fish bones and other organic matter. Most of it is found in Northern Africa: Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Togo, where phosphates are found in sedimentary layers. This source is reasonably rich in phosphate: around 26 to 30 per cent P2O5. It doesn't take much effort to get it out of the ground by strip mining; and upgrading it by rudimentary screening and washing ( to remove unwanted organic material and the largest rubble and residues) produces a saleable product of up to 35 per cent P2O5 at low cost. Roughly 85 per cent of the world's phosphate comes from this source in sedimentary horizontal layering; in South Africa, it comes from mining a vertical pipe of igneous rock of volcanic origin. Instead of strip mining, the mineral-bearing hard rock is open cast- mined from an inverted conical pit which, because the seam is a downward vertical intrusion, requires opening up the top by ever larger and larger circles of hard waste rock being removed at the surface, an altogether more intensive and costly operation. Foskor's rock starts at six per cent P2O5 and requires considerable processing, involving drilling, blasting, crushing, milling and eventually fl otation, to improve the mineral content to 37 per cent P2O5. Fertilizer per se is not made from phosphate rock but rather phosphoric acid, which is produced when sulphuric acid is added to the rock. " But the phosphate rock we have," explains vice president of Mining Johan Horn, " has a real advantage at the refi ning stage. The process is far more effi cient and produces a better quality product than the sedimentary alternative." Fertilizer requires only merchant- grade quality acid, while Foskor can make a much purer technical grade more suited to a wide range of products, from fi zzy drinks to cosmetics. For Foskor, the processing stage takes place in Richards Bay, a magnifi cent natural harbour some 800 kilometres away from the mine in Limpopo, the most north- easterly part of South Africa. " It's not ideal," says Horn, " and means we have to shift two million tonnes of phosphate rock a year to our plant in Richards Bay. But as we have to import sulphuric acid and much of the output of the processing plant is exported, it means that either way we would have to use the rail system extensively." Foskor mines roughly 30 million tonnes of phosphate bearing ore per annum to produce 2.6 million tonnes of phosphate rock concentrate, from which the 2 million tonnes are transported to Richards Bay for conversion into July 09 www. bus- ex. com 51 A domestic monopoly doesn't necessarily mean that hard-headed business decisions aren't on the agenda at Foskor, as Alan Swaby learns resources