A bit of wind in phosphate’s sails
The North Atlantic trade winds could bring about a significant change in the phosphate balance of power. Or, at least, harvesting those winds could.
These trade winds blow in an arc from west of Ireland, then closer to the Portuguese coast and finally intercept the land along the coastlines of Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania. Morocco, which is the country we are concerned with here because of its phosphate, now imports 20% of the electricity it needs from Spain, and so the country (and the phosphate industry) is dependent on the connection to the European grid.
The Sahara Wind Power project could change all that, and provide Morocco with an even more powerful place in the phosphate industry.
But, first, some background. According to a paper written by the managing director of the Sahara wind project, Khalid Benhamou, for the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS), he was supervising development of a farm on Morocco’s Atlantic coast when he was struck by the strength of the winds — three rows of windbreaks were needed to protect the greenhouses. Then a demonstration wind power unit was erected, after which the European Union was brought in to look at whether a 5 gigawatt-sized wind project could be built, with some of the electricity to be sold to the European grid. The development company was formed in 2005 and it was calculated the electricity could be produced for as little as 3c per kilowatt-hour.
Then capacity began to be built. Morocco now has 380 megawatts of wind power generating capacity, while another 700MW are under construction. By 2020 the country will have 2GW.
It’s full circle for the trade winds and Morocco’s phosphate. As the article explains, the trade winds have shaped the Atlantic coast’s currents for millions of years; dead animals and organic debris streamed towards the Moroccan coast and were trapped at the bottom of the country’s Atlas Mountains. “Their accumulation resulted in today’s deposit of 75% of the world’s known phosphate reserves,” as Benhamou explains. “Used mainly for production of fertilisers, their processing into higher value-added derivatives such as phosphoric acid and ammonia provides an unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of the trade winds.”
The wet process preparation of phosphates requires its mixing with a strong acid — either nitric, sulphuric or hydrochloric. Using the last-mentioned will, the article proposes, open up new synergetic processing opportunities in the upgrading of phosphates into phosphoric acid derivates. As fertilizer represents the main end-user for ammonia, developing affordable way to generate hydrogen is a critical issue.
Morocco supplies 20% of the needs of the phosphate fertilizer market, but it needs to import huge amounts of ammonia for that fertilizer production. As Benhamou explains, most of the 140 million tons of the hydrogen needed as feedstock comes from fossil fuels. He argues that producing hydrogen from wind-electrolysis could play a constructive role. Thus wind turbines would produce needed electricity and the green hydrogen could be transformed into ammonia, replacing fossil-fuel based ammonia for use in fertilizer production. The availability of all this new electricity could also lead to the development of other synthetic processes.
He is arguing that Morocco take a leaf out of China’s book. China , using hydro-electric capacity, has supplied its phosphoric acid plants for many decades with cheap power. China still leads the world in the number of phosphate processing patents. While Morocco has 75% of the known phosphate, he points out that China has twice the phosphate processing capacity of Morocco.
Morocco derives 96% of its primary energy needs through fossil fuel imports, which makes it highly vulnerable in energy terms. Now the state-owned phosphate company has given high priority to improving its research and development in this field.
This wind power project also has implications for Mauritania and its iron ore industry, a sector which provides more than 50% of that country’s export earnings and 28% of GDP. Wind power could provide the necessary electricity for Mauritania to develop processing of the iron ore before it is exported. The country, as does Morocco, has a structural trade deficit due to the cost of its fossil fuel imports.
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