When the development team for Mosaic’s K3 potash project near Esterhazy, Saskatchewan was in the early phases of project planning, it’s possible that they took the mantra “Go big or go home” seriously.
There is nothing in this story that deals in halves. Mosaic is the world’s leading producer and marketer of phosphate and potash: both necessary components in fertilizer that becomes more important daily to produce crops necessary to sustain the world’s population.
The K3 project is being touted as one of the larger potash projects in Saskatchewan in decades, with two shafts being sunk in the next three years. The largest hoists ever constructed to serve the project are being supplied in a joint effort by Converteam (acquired by GE Energy on September 2nd) and SIEMAG TECBERG Inc. to maximize production at the mine, with a capacity of 9 million tonnes of ore. And we haven’t even talked about the head frame yet.
Paul McMillen is the Mosaic Esterhazy Expansion Project Manager for the K3 project, and while he was reluctant to claim the podium for the biggest, tallest or most expensive potash project in Saskatchewan; the numbers speak for themselves.
“It depends on what metric you want to look at,” said McMillen. “The hoist will have the capability to hoist some 9 million tonnes annually of ore which we are required to ship to our milling location approximately 6 kilometers east of the K3 mine site. At start up, we will be shipping 3 million tonnes annually, which will produce 1 million tonnes of potash and then ramp up to the 9 million hoisted tonne target.
“Long term, this facility will have the capacity to hoist 19 million tonnes of ore . . . our Esterhazy facility is currently the largest potash mining operation in the world and with the completion of the K3 expansion, it will be even larger.”
It’s not simply output that makes the $1.5 billion project so prodigious. Two shafts are being sunk to a depth of 1.1 km, a tremendous undertaking that the province hasn’t seen since the 1970s.
And, on a per-shaft basis, the K3-which is a continuation of other Esterhazy-based Mosaic operations-will have the highest production in Saskatchewan. Overall, Mosaic is investing $2.3 billion in all of its Esterhazy operations in order to increase the annual potash production to 6.4 million tonnes of potassium chloride annually.
Mosaic’s development team is currently in the freezing process necessary to sink the shafts. This is a lengthy process that involves freezing the ground in the water-bearing Blairmore formations between the surface of the earth and the substantial potash deposits that interfere with shaft sinking. “The water-bearing formation is some 500 meters below the surface under high pressure,” he said.
Five freeze plants are being used in order to prepare the ground for the shafts. Sinking the shafts themselves will take approximately three years to complete-taking the anticipated production start date to sometime in 2016.
At the same time, the foundation to support the massive head frame, which is estimated to be 37 storeys tall; or as McMillen puts it, to be one of the largest structures between Calgary and Winnipeg-is also underway.
The installation of specialized machinery of this magnitude is no simple undertaking. According to Barry Johnson, the Business Development Manager, Mining, N. America for Converteam, the task will require significant coordination to transport and install the hoists and associated hoist equipment. In addition, Then Converteam and SIEMAG TECBERG are relying on in-province contractors as well as their own mine hoist installation and commissioning specialists.
“Once the shaft is sunk, Converteam and SIEMAG TECBERG will be in there assembling and installing the hoists in anticipation of Mosaic roping up the hoists,” said Johnson.
The hoists that Johnson is referring to will be one of the largest potash-mining hoists ever constructed. Converteam in Burlington, Ontario, is partnered with SIEMAG TECBERG Inc. (located in Milwaukee), a mechanical hoist company, to supply and install two hoists-the 11.2-megawatt, six-metre, six-rope Koepe hoist and the 5.5 megawatt four-metre Blair hoist-along with the complete electrical and mechanical installation, training and support portfolio.
That said, one of the biggest challenges faced by all the players will be the lack of manpower that the entirety of the Saskatchewan mining industry is facing. While the economy has certainly taken its toll on employment rates across the country-and a cold, wet spring dampened the spirits of both Saskatchewan farmers and the Mosaic team trying to move earth during pre-development-there are fewer contractors available for hire than there are positions available within the sector.
“I’ve lived in Saskatchewan for most of my life,” said McMillen. “Right now, it feels like we’re like the centre of the universe. It’s challenging to secure labour for a contract.”
However, Johnson maintains that the company is committed to bringing as much economic value to local contractors and businesses as possible. He said that Converteam is using local suppliers and service businesses such as GMR Electric Motors Ltd. and Saskatchewan-based contractors to service the specialized equipment as well as providing their own onsite personnel.
“Converteam and SIEMAG TECBERG’s specialists will be there before the contractors arrive, and they will be there after,” said Johnson. “For the longer term, we’ve committed to having service personnel for both the electrical and the mechanical, on the ground in Saskatchewan, providing critical local service support. So although it’s a very specialized piece of equipment, we’re localizing our talent in Saskatchewan.”
Converteam has a longstanding association with SIEMAG TECBERG, supplying complete hoist systems on a global basis. The two companies provide both sides of a complete hoist package: SIEMAG TECBERG is responsible for the mechanical components of the hoist while Converteam provides the electrical and control system’s, and both companies are providing training, installation, commissioning and technical support. The Converteam /SIEMAG TECBERG partnership works on large mine hoist projects. In this case, Converteam will be the overall project lead providing a single point of project responsibility and management that is going to execute in a timely, safe and quality manner.
Their collaborative history includes work on the deepest mine in the world-the South Deeps gold mining operation in South Africa.”That mine hoist, for example, hoists from approximately two miles (3.2 kilometres) deep with a single lift,” said Ken Nelson, the President of SIEMAG TECBERG Inc. (USA). “That features a SIEMAG TECBERG Blair hoist that is different from what Mosaic is purchasing but, certainly from the perspective of very large equipment, it’s a Blair hoist with very similar electrical components.”
The motors of Blair and Koepe hoists that will be installed on Mosaic’s K3 are similar to the South Deeps operation. Converteam is using overhung “induction” motors-robust, high-availability, high-efficiency equipment that has been used very effectively throughout the world without operating failure.
“It’s that same technology that we’re implementing for the Mosaic K3 project to ensure reliability and maximum up-time on the equipment,” said Johnson. “So it’s a combination of knowledge from previous mine hoist installations with utlilizing the latest technologies that are available today, and localizing our support. It’s a good success story.”
The success story is what Mosaic is counting on for its own operation. What Converteam brings to the table is project management and engineering for the complete electrical supply, such as the induction overhung motors for the hoist, the variable speed drives, the motor control centres, the medium voltage arc flash resistant switch gear, all intellectual property and software that goes inside the programmable logic
controllers (PLCs) to make it operate-and continues all the way down to the operator control desk, operator’s screen, speed regulation and protection equipment.
SIEMAG TECBERG, on the other hand, picks up where Converteam leaves off: the actual shaft mechanicals, the hoist mechanicals, the shaft, the drum, the brakes, brake hydraulic systems, the babbit bearings, bearing lubrications systems and other related components.
“Anyone can start a mine hoist winder-however, slowing it down and stopping it effectively from maximum speed is a science,” said Johnson. “It is all about safety; it’s all about providing maximum speed, maximum tonnage and doing it safely for personnel and materials-and SIEMAG TECBERG’s in-house braking system and proprietary systems are designed and engineered for maximum safety and braking capability.
McMillen said the safety controls are another reason the Converteam/SIEMAG TECBERG partnership was so attractive to Mosaic. All told, when the skips are loaded with payload (approximately 55 tonnes). Nelson estimated that the combined tonnage of payload, ropes, skip and other associated machinery will be close to 300 metric tonnes. And the hoists will be bringing that load to the surface at a rate of 18.3 m per second.
“We work very hard to have all of our employees come to work and go home from work in the same condition they arrive,” said McMillen. “When done well, it looks very easy-but it has to be done well and it has to be done hundreds and thousands and millions of times over the life of the hoist.”
“To provide a sense of scale, it’s like a freight train coming out of the ground that is travelling at approximately six storeys every second, and you’ve got well over 300 tonnes of combined payload and suspended load,” said Johnson.
Nelson said that the international interdependency is, for him, one of the most interesting aspects of the project.
“We’re borrowing from our experiences and our offices in places like South Africa, Australia, Germany, Canada and the U.S., and borrowing experience from companies that go back decades for a culmination of all that experience coming together for Mosaic, because they do have a very unique application there,” said Nelson. “This is certainly a one-of-a-kind opportunity for all of the companies to showcase what we have done over the years that we can pull together for one project.”
McMillen also commented on the international collaboration that, over the years, has developed the technology that has made huge potash-mining projects possible, such as sinking the shafts themselves.