Megaproject in the Prairies


Life can get pretty lonely in Saskatchewan. Yet this has not stopped several Bayer employees from relocating to the Canadian province. A subsidiary of K+S is building a potash mine there, and has commissioned Bayer Technology Services with managing the project.

Southern Saskatchewan is practically nothing but prairies and wheatfields. Apart from some ridges, small lakes - and those long, icy-cold winters. Yet much has already been realized in just a few months as part of the K+S “Legacy” project, including the first boreholes in the earth, through which hot water will be pumped to force a highly concentrated solution to the surface.

Jiu Jiang is used to driving for two hours each way to work. When traffic was bad in Shanghai, his daily trip to the Bayer plant in the Shanghai Chemical Industry Park, some 30 miles south of the Chinese metropolis, would take up to two hours. Even today, living and working in Canada, the chemical engineer spends just as long traveling to the K+S construction site in southern Saskatchewan. Driving in Shanghai, however, was a slightly different experience.

Liu now covers 125 miles in the same time, but unlike in Shanghai, just ten minutes into his journey he will have left the outskirts of Saskatoon behind him. From here onwards, all he sees from Highway 11 are endless fields of wheat and rapeseed. The route towards the provincial capital, Regina, is at times so straight that Liu hardly needs to turn the steering wheel. Accidents with other vehicles are not a great danger, but falling asleep at the wheel is. If, on occasion, his journey does come to a standstill, it is not due to traffic jams, but rather to icy roads in the midst of a winter blizzard or slow-moving farm equipment in summer.

Liu still remembers the first trip he made to his new job site. About a year ago, all he could see around him was cropland, and he wondered where the construction site was going to be – especially one so large. The customer, K+S and its Canadian subsidiary K+S Potash Canada GP, would be investing around 4.1 billion Canadian dollars in developing a potash mine to be completed in 2016, a sum exceeding the total investment costs of all the Bayer plants that Liu had supervised during his ten years in Shanghai, including some world-scale projects. Yet aside from a few isolated signs referring to “K+S Potash Canada,” there was little to be seen for miles.

“This is part of the future of K+S, and we can add our know-how.”

Dr. Gerd Dahlhoff

Head of Bayer Technology Services Canada

The need for potassium

All human cells are reliant on potassium. In fact, our daily intake of nutrients should include at least two grams of this alkali metal. Plants need it, too: if they do not have enough, their leaves fade and their metabolism is affected. This is why potassium is considered the third most important nutrient for plants after nitrogen and phosphorus, and thus a basic component of many fertilizers. Studies have shown that fertilization using potassium can greatly increase the yield of corn, wheat and soybeans. In 2013, the global demand for potassium reached almost 60 million tons, over half of which was put to agricultural use. Furthermore, potassium salts play an important role in the industrial production of chlorine, for example, and in the manufacture of building materials and plastics, as well as in the pharmaceutical industry, such as for the production of insulin. One of the world’s largest manufacturers of potassium products is K+S in Kassel, Germany.

In 2011, K+S acquired the Canadian company, Potash One, so as to increase its own manufacturing capacities. Alongside the world-class reserves of around one billion tons of potassium chloride, this deal includes the relevant environmental certification for mining the 160 million tons of the Legacy project. 

Little changed even after Liu had finally reached the K+S premises and passed the security checkpoint. Across the fields the first drilling rigs could be seen, which K+S would use to drill the wells from which the potash would later be mined. It was only after driving another 15 minutes along a gravel road that he found himself standing in front of some portable cabins used as offices, in the middle of nowhere. Apart from a huge water pipe and some digging in places, there was not much else to see.

“Wow,” thought Liu. “In the middle of wheat and “big sky” and without any infrastructure.” The chemical plants he had previously worked at were small in comparison. Hardly surprising considering the plan was to tap into an underground reserve of an estimated 160 million tons of potassium chloride. Enough to provide every person on earth with more than 20 kilograms of potassium chloride each – and to fill almost two million railroad cars. A train this long would span the entire globe.

However, a lot of work has to be done before K+S can load the first railcars. Not only does the railroad connection exist purely on paper, but the potash also has to be mined from at least a mile underground. It is going to be a technical challenge.

This area of no man’s land in Saskatchewan needs an infrastructure before the huge reserves of potash can be mined. Starting with proper roads (above), which only then allow the material and machinery to be transported (below).
This area of no man’s land in Saskatchewan needs an infrastructure before the huge reserves of potash can be mined. Starting with proper roads (above), which only then allow the material and machinery to be transported (below).

“There was really nothing there,” recalls Dr. Gerd Dahlhoff, Head of Bayer Technology Services Canada, who started work on the site prior to his colleague, Liu Jiang. Other than the arrow-straight gravel roads that divide the fields of southern Saskatchewan like a checkerboard, it really was a lot of wheat and an endless blue sky. These roads were unsuitable at first, however, and had to be reinforced before they could support the heavy trucks supplying the necessary building materials.

The main task was developing the infrastructure for mining the potash and constructing the huge above-ground processing plants in this landscape with its many lakes. However, there was also the peak workforce of almost two thousand construction workers to think about. This meant installing offices and housing, a water and gas supply, a wastewater disposal system, and electricity. The project site even had to be connected to the cellular network.

Saskatchewan’s largest city, Saskatoon, where Bayer Technology Services now has its own offices.
Saskatchewan’s largest city, Saskatoon, where Bayer Technology Services now has its own offices.

Internally, K+S named the project “Legacy.” To ensure that a project of this size and complexity ran smoothly, K+S sought a project management and engineering partner for their “Owner’s Team”. They needed a partner who had both the technical expertise required as well as substantial experience in handling large-scale projects.

The decision to commission Bayer Technology Services began three years earlier at a meeting of Aachen University alumni. Dr. Jürgen Barge, then in an executive position at K+S, and Dr. Wilfried Kopp, head of ‘Chemicals’ within Project Management & Engineering at Bayer Technology Services were talking about their career paths since receiving their degrees. Barge mentioned to Kopp that his company had acquired the Canadian Potash One in 2011, and now had several exploration permits for potash, which were being combined into one megaproject. He also said that K+S was still looking for a partner to join the Owner’s Team to provide project management and related services.

This caught Kopp’s attention: “We have a lot of experience in large project development, so why not work with us!” Which is exactly what K+S did. This led to Dahlhoff, Liu and ten other colleagues from Bayer Technology Services relocating to Saskatoon – many of whom had already met on similarly large projects in Shanghai.

Dahlhoff had also worked in the Chinese metropolis for eight years, supervising several major projects there, before returning to Germany in mid-2012. He had not been back in Germany long when K+S confirmed the Saskatchewan project. At short notice, he put together a strong Bayer team for Legacy, established the Canadian division of Bayer Technology Services and was appointed as its manager. At the same time, he was made one of the three managers of the so-called “Execution Team” for the K+S project, responsible for engineering, procurement, and contract management, as well as the actual construction of the facility and the site development. 

“Their experience in handling major projects will complement our own expertise significantly.”

Dr. Ulrich Lamp

Chief Executive Officer, K+S Potash Canada

It is interesting to note here a further role played by Dahlhoff at K+S that is both unusual and another example of the deep integration of the Bayer teams: As Vice President Controls at K+S Potash Canada he also reports to the CEO there, Dr. Ulrich Lamp: “If you take a closer look, you’ll see this is absolutely essential for the day-to-day operations. Nonetheless, I consider this a special responsibility and proof of the great amount of trust involved.”

Liu Jiang, on the other hand, is a part of the “Owner’s Team”, which will play a key role in the design phase and in supporting the field engineering and execution on the construction site. He is responsible for the largest of the facilities on site – the “Evaporation, Clarification, Crystallization” units, which are currently being manufactured in China, among other places. This is where the extracted saline solution will be purified and crystallized. At the same time, he also needs to ensure that the “Early Cavern Development” division is ready by October of this year – a prerequisite for tapping into the potash reserves and starting operation of the main plant.

Gerd Dahlhoff is extremely excited about the project. “This is part of the future of K+S, and we can add our expertise. ”The client is equally pleased with the project. “Bayer Technology Services suits us very well, starting with our common German background. They have a lot of experience in handling major projects, particularly on a global scale, and allimportant specialist know-how in chemicals, which will complement our own expertise significantly,” says Lamp. He is also impressed with the way Dahlhoff’s colleagues cooperate and their dedication to the project: “If you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between their staff and our own.”

The teams have already achieved a lot in the first year of the project. This is all the more impressive when you consider the long harsh winters in Saskatchewan, where the temperature can drop to -50°C, making construction work above ground a particular challenge from November through April. Nevertheless, there is a temporary cabin camp where the numerous skilled workers live, equipped with 1,500 beds, a kitchen complex, gyms and an entertainment center – kind of like a resort hotel. “It’s the largest settlement between Regina and Saskatoon,” Dahlhoff adds with a smile. “And even then they are still close to 200 miles apart.” Liu’s Early Cavern Development is heading for completion in the last quarter of this year. Driving in the piles for the main complex is progressing at a good pace and the initial drilling into the reserves is almost completed. For Liu and his coworkers, the action will soon move away from the Saskatoon office toward the Legacy construction site.

After all, there is still so much to do. By 2016, 36 caverns (see: “Making the grade”) will have been created. These will supply the initial tons of potash, which K+S plans to ship via rail to the export facility near Vancouver, and then via bulk carrier ships to K+S’s worldwide customer base. Just one year after that, K+S aims to produce two million tons, and in the years that follow, this will continuously increase to around three or even up to four million tons a year. It is estimated that it will take more than 50 years before the current deposits have been mined. Legacy is certainly a project of the century.

Making the grade

Unlike oil or natural gas, potash cannot be simply pumped from a depth of one mile underground. The method chosen for the Legacy project was potash solution mining. Initially, two large bore-holes of equal depth are drilled into the earth, 80 yards apart, into which inner and outer pipes are inserted. Hot water is then injected into the outer pipe to dissolve the sodium chloride seam, found under the potash seam. This creates a brine which is then pumped to the surface. At this stage, a special layer of hydrocarbons is injected into the potash seam to prevent its premature dissolution. Eventually, the cavities under both boreholes become so large that they combine to form a cavern. Gradually, the potassium chloride is dissolved and the highly concentrated solution is then pumped up to the surface. Because this is a mixture of sodium and potassium chloride, further purification stages follow above ground. In order to reach customers around the world, the salt will be transported by rail to the port of Vancouver, 800 miles away. From there two further Bayer Technology Services employees are already preparing the entire logistics strategy.

However, Bayer Technology Services will not be staying that long. Dahlhoff estimates that for most of his employees work will be finished by 2016, or at the latest by the beginning of 2017. If everything continues to run as smoothly as it has until now, the head of Bayer Technology Services Canada will not have to worry about the project: “Budgeting and scheduling a megaproject of this kind is undoubtedly a challenge. But the team from K+S is well organized, has a great deal of technical expertise and an experienced local contractor. Our first ton of potash will be delivered to the customer on time in 2016.”

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  1. Hans-Joachim WieseGroßartig , ein wirklich herausragendes Projekt in einem tollen und herausfordernden Land.
    Die Kanadier sagen: Only actions brings satisfaction.
    In diesem Sinne wünsche ich unserem Kunden K+S und natürlich der BTS mit allen Mitarbeitern viel Erfolg, eine gute Zeit - und einen windgeschützten Platz.

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