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Zimbabwe to convert coal to fertiliser in new government project

A state-owned company in Zimbabwe is looking to use locally available coal to develop ammonia-based fertilisers. Zimbabwe’s Verify Engineering completed a feasibility study on coal gasification technology that can be leveraged to produce nitrogenous fertilisers. Zimbabwe has a high demand for fertiliser, but local production can only meet 10% of demand.

A Zimbabwean government-owned entity, Verify Engineering, is preparing to use locally available coal to develop ammonia-based fertilisers as the country ramps up agricultural productivity.

“We are going to employ [a] gasification process for us to come up with ammonium-based fertilisers. The processing technologies and designs are already in place,” said the company’s board chairperson, Edgar Kamusoko.

The project, which is a joint venture partnership between Verify Engineering and Magcor Consortium Group of Companies from Canada, is expected to produce a “significant” amount of top-dressing fertiliser for farmers to satisfy the country’s fertiliser demand. This comes after Verify completed a feasibility study on coal gasification technology as a means of producing gas which can be further upgraded into nitrogenous fertilisers by using the Bosch-Haber process.

The southern African country has a high demand for fertiliser, but local production can only meet 10% of the demand. The remaining 90% needs to be imported – which is a problem for farmers in a country that faces foreign currency shortages and a wildly fluctuating exchange rate.

Verify Engineering is a significant producer of acetylene, medical oxygen, industrial gases, and nitrogen gases and supplies customers in the healthcare, petrochemical refining, manufacturing, beverages, food, fibre-optics, steel manufacturing, chemicals and water treatment industries. The firm was established in April 2005 with the support of the Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development Ministry and launched a strategic business unit in 2021.

In 2018, President Emmerson Mnangagwa approved the implementation of the project, valued at $750 million. After this, the two companies visited China to carry out technical diligence on the Chinese companies that would help them implement the project. “The [Chinese] companies were supposed to demonstrate their ability and proven track record in carrying out such projects and, in particular, their ability to integrate different types of licensed technologies on their front-end engineering and design as well as carrying out construction,” Verify’s CEO, Pedzisai Tapfumaneyi, told Zimbabwe’s Sunday Mail.

According to the Zimbabwe Fertiliser Manufacturers Association, the country’s fertiliser industry requires about $135 million annually to operate at 60% capacity or more to meet current demand.

Coal is high in carbon, a source of energy for microorganisms that permanently enrich soil nutrition, including depleted, damaged, underused and unused soils. The nutrients in coal must be processed and activated in order for plants to absorb them as fertilisers. Coal-to-fertiliser technology is also referred to as nutrient activation technology. Some countries with abundant coal resources, like South Africa and China, already use gasification methods to manufacture fertilisers. Gasification turns organic or fossil-based carbonaceous materials into a very hot (up to 1 800°C) synthesis gas, or syngas, without combustion, which is composed of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide, as well as small amounts of other gases and particles, with a controlled amount of oxygen. The process is accomplished by mixing pulverised coal with an oxidant, usually steam or oxygen. The whole process makes the hard fossil-based materials with high carbon content change into a simple form so that plants can easily absorb them. The granulation process also makes the fertiliser easier to use when the fertilising process has to be done.

There are more than 150 coal-to-chemical facilities in China, mostly converting coal to coke, fertiliser or oleo-chemicals. According to a report from the Wilson Centre, the industry has grown since 2013, as local governments pushed the technology to meet the increasing demand for fertilisers and natural gas.

Zimbabwe will be using its abundant coal reserves as feedstock to produce ammonium-based fertilisers of the highest international quality standards in a clean manner.

Kamusoko, expects this technology to close the fertiliser gap by 2026. “So, we will establish a pilot plant, which in the next three years, will start closing that gap,” he said. “We are ready to establish the plant, and we are only waiting for final funding from the government. In the next few years, we should be able to set up that plant which will produce substantial ammonium-based fertilisers for the agricultural sector,” he added.

Clive Mphambela, the spokesperson for the finance ministry, said they would be disbursing the money soon. “Yes, we promised them funds to uplift the project. Verify Engineering is a government-owned entity, and we fund all of their projects, so at the moment, I can’t specify the amount of money they requested for that particular project, but there are people within the ministry who are working on that, and they will get their funds very soon,” he said.

Justice Marumbi, a local commercial maize and tobacco farmer, commended the idea and said owning fertiliser-producing plants in the country would help them grow as an agricultural sector. “This is good news to me. Having our fertiliser-producing plants will make our farming activities easier. “There will be no need to go outside Zimbabwe and look for what is being locally manufactured. That’s a great idea, I hope they are going to kickstart the project soon,” he said. “Buying local is cheaper than importing, and this shows that there is hope for our ailing Zimbabwean economy,” he added.

Another commercial maize and soybeans farmer, Gift Chimhuka, said it was his wish for the project to be implemented soon to eliminate transport and import costs, which are the main factors. “The innovation shows that Zimbabwe is taking seriously the issue of food security. We will no longer need to import expensive fertilisers from our neighbouring countries. “If we start to own our fertiliser-producing plants, everyone will benefit because jobs will be created for our graduates.

According to a 2022 report presented by Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water, and Rural Development Minister Anxious Masuka, high fertiliser costs are affecting productivity within the agricultural sector. Therefore, the establishment of fertiliser manufacturing plants in the country will give the farmers a sigh of relief.

“The cost of fertiliser presented the biggest constraint to increasing production,” the report partly reads.

Zimbabwean economist Vince Musewe said establishing a local coal-to-fertiliser manufacturing plant was an excellent step towards harnessing agricultural activities in the country because it would reduce the costs of fertiliser inputs for farmers. “The local production of fertilisers is beneficial to farmers because it lowers the overall costs of fertiliser inputs,” he said.

https://www.news24.com/fin24/climate_future/solutions/zimbabwe-to-convert-coal-to-fertiliser-in-new-government-project-20230513