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Volume 27, Number 2March/April 1976

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Golden Dust

Written and photographed by Rami G. Khouri

Hani Ghanma leans back in his chair, rocks forward and decisively plants both elbows on his desk. If you did not know him, you could picture the burly man as a contender in the East Mediterranean arm wrestling championships, practicing in the relative quiet of his Amman, Jordan, office. But then he whips a small electronic calculator from his coat pocket, rips open a cellophane-wrapped package and—before you can say "tricalcium phosphate"—the marketing and sales manager of the Jordan Phosphate Mines Company replaces the batteries in his little machine and begins to punch in some figures. The performance takes perhaps 10 seconds. He does not miss a breath or ruffle any of the many copies of The Financial Times that clutter his desk. But when he puts the calculator down he has some impressive totals to discuss: some three million tons in anticipated phosphate rock sales worth $180 million.

Phosphate production is one of the most gawdawfully dusty, gritty, messy industries this side of the coal mines, but the white stuff somehow sprouts golden haloes when you recognize that it sells for over $60 a ton these days, nearly the going price of oil. In a neighborhood of petroleum giants, Jordan still has no oil at all, as far as anybody has been able to determine, but the desert country's prospects seem a little more verdant when you realize that experts estimate that it may be sitting on three billion tons of high-grade phosphate rock.

Phosphate is a vital raw material for the world fertilizer industry. The good stuff in the rock is the chemical fellow called tricalcium phosphate (TCP), and the quality of the rock is measured principally by how much TCP it contains. Jordan's best seller is Hasa rock, with a TCP content of 75 percent. The tricalcium phosphate—Ca3(PO2)—can be combined with sulphuric acid to make what is known as single superphosphate fertilizer. It can also be mixed with phosphoric acid to produce triple superphosphate fertilizer, which is to young vegetables in the ground as guitars are to singing nuns.

The phosphate rock can also be treated to produce phosphorous chemicals for industrial and other uses. Or, if you're in the business, you can take the rock, knock its fluorine content down from three percent to less than one-tenth percent and use it to upgrade animal feeds, for sparkling teeth and strong bones.

The phosphate industry in Jordan has come into its own during the past three years, just as the international price of phosphate quadrupled from the long-time $15 level. The world export market in phosphates is currently dominated by Morocco, the United States and the Soviet Union, with Jordan's share of international sales in the past few years hovering around the two-to-three percent mark. This would not make Chicago commodity brokers tango, but for Jordan it was beautiful music. Now, in 1976, Jordan expects to export enough of the golden dust to bring in some $180 million in revenues. Phosphate rock is already by far the country's leading foreign exchange earner (accounting for more than half of total exports), and the industry is providing spinoff benefits in technical, managerial and human services that are spreading to some neighboring Arab countries. This year's target of three million tons will at last put Jordan in the big leagues of international phosphates, and the men who run the Jordan Phosphate Mines Company (JPMC) are ready to play ball.

Hani Ghanma, the company's marketing and sales manager, is one member of the team, and his calculator has been toting up increasing annual sales because of the work of still others, men such as Salah Taqieddin.

Taqieddin is acting manager at the company's huge Hasa mine, 100 miles down the road from Amman. Twice a day, he hops into his six-cylinder Dodge Ramcharger wagon and rides out to check operations in the open-cast mines, where local drivers wrap their headdresses around their faces to protect themselves from the dust, and handle the giant D-9 bulldozers and mammoth earthmovers the way photogenic cowboys steer doggies around Marlboro Country.

Another 150 miles down the same road, Adel Sharie answers the radio call in his office to learn from Amman headquarters that a French ship is steaming via Suez to Jordan to pick up 7,000 tons of top-quality phosphate rock in one week's time. As manager of the company's storage and shipping facilities at Aqaba, a port in south Jordan, his job is to make sure the order goes out as promised. He calls his dockside foreman on the internal phone and instructs him to set aside a special spot to receive the French order, then hops into his white Peugeot sedan and bumps down to the waterside where the company has built automated installations that will handle the bulk of this year's exports.

Dr. Mamoun Abu Khader, head of the company's research and development department, says that about 75 percent of exports now go into the fertilizer industry, with the rest being used for other chemicals, detergents or animal feed grades. He also points out, talking about the chemistry of phosphates as most people talk about their children, that Jordan's phosphate rock is especially good because it has a low chlorine and moisture content. The JPMC concentrates on mining, processing and exporting, but also runs a small single superphosphate fertilizer plant to meet local needs and soon may take a share in a planned $150-million triple superphosphate fertilizer plant scheduled to be built at Aqaba as a joint venture with the American company Agrico.

As yet, however, JPMC essentially undertakes a process called, in Dr. Abu Khader's words, "mechanical upgrading of raw phosphate." Simply stated, Jordan's phosphate industry at this stage is a collection of men (the only women so far are clerical staff in Amman headquarters) who find the phosphate deposits, dig the rock out of the ground, crush and sift it into a fine, sand-like powder, wash it with plain water, dry it in a big oven, truck it, store it and ship it away for processing into fertilizers, or whatever, in other countries. Phosphate mining is, at heart, a mechanical rather than a chemical industry. No rotten egg smell here—just dust, and plenty of it.

In doing their dusty deed, the 2,423 employees of the Jordan Phosphate Mines Company run a physical plant made up of seemingly endless miles of conveyor belts that move the rock from the ground where it is mined, through the various processes and into the ships that dock at Aqaba to take it away.

The company runs two mine sites, at Ruseifa, just 10 miles north of Amman, and at Hasa, 100 miles south. The beauty of the Hasa site is that the phosphate rock sits in one huge bed under the earth. After digging up the top layer—which at Hasa averages 15 yards thickness—the phosphate rock is sitting there in one of the earth's best examples of easy pickin'. (At least as compared with Ruseifa, where four layers of phosphate are separated by layers of unwanted rock that must be discarded.)

Trucks take the rock from the mine site to the crushing and screening units that smash the stuff into tiny fragments. After that there is the screening unit where anything over a half inch is separated and set aside in huge storage areas. This is called the "hard reject," and has a low TCP content of about 50 percent. Dr. Abu Khader and his crew of chemists are working on means of upgrading it to near 70 percent TCP, which would make it a very marketable product.

The bulk of the now sand-like phosphate rock passes through more screens and rides a conveyor belt into the washing, or "wet screening" unit. Here it is hosed down with water as it passes through two shaking 8 mm. and 4 mm. screens. It comes out as a sort of slush that is shot at very high speeds into a spinning "cyclone," where the very thin particles fly off and the rest goes into the filter. The filter sucks out a good deal of the water, and the clean wet "cake," with about 15 percent moisture content, rides another long conveyor belt into the drier (or "roaster" in Arabic). The drier is a large, drum-like rotating oven with temperatures of over 212 º F. The original phosphate rock that was pulled out of the ground with TCP content of about 65 percent finally emerges from the drier with a TCP content of over 70 percent, and frequently as high as 75 percent.

During the run through the drier, electrostatic precipitators pull up very fine particles of phosphate rock, which are bagged and sold as a unique product called JORPHOS (Jordan Phosphate). It can be applied directly to the earth as a fertilizer, and is used extensively for the fine tea plants of Ceylon.

Sometimes the whole washing and screening process is skipped. Some high-quality rock is so good when it is mined that it is simply passed through the first crushing unit and sent directly to the drier.

Most of the final product is then loaded onto specially designed trucks or railway hopper wagons and sent down to Aqaba where it goes by sea to markets in Europe and Asia, although a small amount still moves by truck through neighboring Syria to Turkey. Both the wagons and the trucks dump their loads into an underground unit at Aqaba, where the fine rock once again rides a conveyor belt into one of the four huge silos at the dockside. The inside of the silo is something like the inside of a giant can of talcum powder with a high-powered fan inside. It is infinite dust. When the operation must be stopped for some reason, it takes half a day for the dust inside to settle.

The four silos, with a total capacity of 180,000 tons, are connected by yet more conveyor belts to the two berths, where ships of up to 100,000 tons can dock and load. After a JPMC man has gone aboard the ship to be sure its hold is clean, swept out and ready to receive the phosphate, the rock is conveyor-belted for the last time and shot into the hold through a huge nozzle-like monster which belches and bellows dust in something of a final act of glory at the end of the line.

By this time, the phosphate has come a long way. And so has the industry in Jordan itself. The country's first phosphate deposits were discovered accidentally in 1902 during construction of the Hijaz Railway which passed through Jordan on its route from Damascus to Medina, the Muslim Holy City in present-day Saudi Arabia. The railroad became widely known in the West after Lawrence of Arabia destroyed much of it during World War I during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks. Production on a significant scale did not begin until 1934 when a few underground mines at Ruseifa were opened. Small driers were installed in 1950, and today's large, 90-ton-per-hour German units started operations in the mid-60's. Overall production has increased from a few hundred tons in 1934 to 368,000 tons in 1960 and 1.6 million in 1974. This year the JPMC plans to produce 3 million tons from the Hasa and Ruseifa mines, with an ultimate target of 10 million tons per year by the 1980's.

Allied to its mining activity, the company also runs a vast mechanical maintenance operation which can overhaul a bulldozer's motor or rethread a tiny screw. At the Hasa site, with its graceful 1,700-yard-long conveyor belt, the workers and their families live in a handsome town complete with private homes, clinic, school, club, dining facilities, recreational center and buses to take the single men to Amman for weekends with their families.

The company, which is 93 percent government-owned, boasts 52 engineers who have studied abroad for their university degrees in mining technology or mineral sciences. The winner of the degree derby, hands down, is Dr. Abu Khader, who followed up his BSc and MSc from Cairo and Ankara with a diploma from London's Imperial College, a PhD from London University and, for good measure, a year's post-doctoral research in London.

The company's managing director, Sabet Tahir, says with a flourish that his company has been requested by neighboring Syria and Iraq to provide technical aid for their nascent phosphate industries. In fact, the company is starting to feel the pressure of labor-poor oil producers in the Gulf region who are scouting around the rest of the Arab world for technical people. Company spokesmen are also quick to confirm that the entire operation is run by Jordanians, with foreign specialists called in only when a new machine or technique is introduced.

A case in point is the exploration activity taking place in the southeastern part of the country, in an area around Shadir, where some British technicians are introducing new drilling equipment. The Shadir area is already known to be rich in phosphates, and company geologists estimate that up to 60 percent of Jordan may be endowed with phosphate rock. The new airport site south of Amman is reportedly sitting on one giant bed of phosphate, for example, as is the city of Zarqa, north of Amman.

Sales and marketing manager Hani Ghanma believes the company's role in the Jordanian scheme of things transcends the "purely commercial considerations" of bringing in foreign exchange. "We have a big role to play in technology," he says. And, Ruseifa mine manager Abdul Fattah Abu Hassan adds, the company offers employee benefits that are something of a pace-setter in the country, if not the region.

On the technical side, there is a pervasive confidence that Dr. Abu Khader and his young chemists will find an economical way to upgrade the vast stores of low-quality, discarded rock that has so far been a byproduct of the production process. The matter seems almost frivolous in view of the new discoveries being made, which may bring the country's proven reserves of phosphate rock to a snug three billion tons.

That's a lot of TCP, but as long as Hani Ghanma's pocket calculator is well supplied with batteries, Jordan and its Phosphate Mines Company will step onto the international stage with the depth and deposits to move forward—on schedule and on a conveyor belt billowing clouds of golden dust.

Rami G. Khouri, who has written for the Daily Star, An-Nahar and Arab Report, all in Beirut, is a Palestinian journalist now working in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia

This article appeared on pages 34-41 of the March/April 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1976 images.