‘IT IS anything but routine,’ says Maurice Idelson, director-general of Krebs Reseau Eurisys. He is referring to the Indo-Jordan Chemicals Company (IJC), the $170 million fertiliser plant at Shidiyeh in the harsh southeast desert region of Jordan. Idelson says that all the experience that Krebs has acquired through building 30 fertiliser plants and being involved in the construction of 200 others has gone into Shidiyeh. Now under commissioning, it is due to be in production by May 1997.

‘We have built plants in far out places,’ says Idelson, ‘but not a project of this magnitude in a site like this. It is Jordan’s largest industrial investment and in the context of strict sourcing requirements, being on time and budget, it is an achievement.’

The parameters of the project are straightforward – one plant is to produce 700 tonnes a day (t/d) of phosphoric acid and an adjoining facility will produce 2,000 t/d of sulphuric acid. The two units are located next to the Jordan Phosphate Mines Company’s (JPMC’s) Shidiyeh mine which provides their basic raw material.

Getting the project up and running was still a considerable challenge. According to IJC deputy chairman and managing director Babu Verghese the idea of the joint venture was unique. The advantage for JPMC was to export 50 per cent more rock phosphate in value-added form while IJC could earn revenues of $80 million a year. Southern Petrochemicals Industries Corporation (SPIC) of India would obtain a sustained supply of phosphoric acid for its fertiliser plants in India and at a discount price. An added incentive was the willingness of the Jordanian government to declare the project area a free zone with a range of tax and customs incentives.

Bad timing

Verghese says it was unfortunate that the project, first floated before the Gulf war, was revived in 1992-93 when the phosphate market was very gloomy and phosphoric acid prices were at a 20-year low. This made it difficult to mobilise support. The planned joint venture company had no assets of its own, but neither the governments of India and Jordan, nor the projects promoters, were willing to provide guarantee for any loans.

The two partners, burnt by bitter past experience, were determined to succeed. In the late 1980’s, SPIC had seen its raw materials prices soar so high on heavy market demand that Indian fertiliser companies were forced to halt production. It did not want to repeat the experience. JPMC was equally determined to guarantee its long-term market and expand its downstream activities. Fortunately for the two partners the unique features of the joint venture and an upturn in the fertiliser market helped to convince the International Finance Corporation (IFC) that the project could work.

Once the IFC was prepared to provide a loan of $30 million, other backers were more easily persuaded. French participation was guaranteed when the export credit agency Coface made a commitment – its first project finance venture alongside the World Bank.

The project still had to work its way through the complexities of Indian government policy. SPIC was authorised to invest in the new venture, o conditions, such as that about 70 per cent of its total outlay should be on equipment and services sourced in India. In addition, although it was a turnkey project, the successful contractor had to have an Indian sub-contractor who would supply 20 per cent of the contract price in rupees.

These preconditions were satisfied when Krebs, the lowest bidder on the project, took on SPIC’s own maintenance organisation – SPIC SMO – as its partner and won the $120 million turnkey contract for design and construction. At this point, Krebs and Indo-Jordan set out to build a plant which would be a world leader in terms of technology and respect for its environment. This was a tough undertaking at an awkward location in an isolated desert area, 150 kilometres from the port of Aqaba and 300 kilometres from the Jordanian capital Amman.

What makes the plant special is the careful integration of the latest technology and pollution control features to ensure maximum productive efficiency and a strong emphasis on safety. The phosphoric acid plant uses a hemihydrate process instead of the more capital-intensive dihydrate process. It allows the company to incorporate certain special features and equipment which make it possible to work at higher capacity with better pollution reduction measures. The process is drier and produces less liquid effluent. Some effluent is unavoidable, but the plant is designed so that this is recycled where possible. The surplus is neutralised and pumped out.

The hemihydrate process has the added advantage of minimising water consumption. There is an apparent abundance in the reservoir, but all of the plant’s water supplies have to be pumped from bore wells in the area. The process requires high temperature operations in the reaction system so the design emphasises the use of materials that resist corrosion.

IJC was also keen to find a way around the problem common to all phosphoric acid plants of relatively low on stream factors. In general, the need to handle solids and slurries means that they are able to work for less than 300 days a year compared with 330-340 days for sulphuric acid plants. Verghese says that the Shidiyeh plant introduces redundancy in sections that are prone to frequent down time and maintenance.

The sulphuric acid plant uses an advanced double contact/double absorption (DC/DA) process, using Monsanto technology, which drastically reduces sulphur dioxide and trioxide emission levels and improves the performance and efficiency of the plant. The heat recovery system also manages to generate 12.8 MW of power, of which 8 MW is used to run the plant and the 4 MW surplus is sold on the National Electric Power Company (NEPCO) for the national grid.

The Shidiyeh plant has a mixed approach to automation. The water supply is regulated via a microwave link to the pumping station and a ully-automated, dust-free system loads the rock phosphate into the plant. The gypsum left from the phosphoric acid production process, stored in cake form for easier handling, is sent to a special storage area by a closed circuit video- controlled conveyor system. Other aspects of the work are less automated in recognition of the fact that local staff with the appropriate technical skills are not yet available for all areas of the operation.

The demand for both a high Indian input and the most appropriate materials for the project made for an eclectic mix when it came to sourcing. Krebs did the instrument design for the microwave link for the pumping station; its software and hardware were provided by Yokogawa Blue Star of India; the sulphur dioxide furnace for the sulphuric acid plant has a brick lining supplied by Beujeun of France and built by Indian technicians; the acid- proof bricks for the lining of the phosphoric acid plant are from Stuhler of Germany.

Where possible Jordanian companies have also been given a role. Civil works for the plant have been carried out by Mid-Soledac, a joint venture of the local ME Contractors and Soledac of France. Two local transport companies, Naberesco and Jerusalem Resources, have contracts to build and run the stainless steel trucks that are needed to carry the phosphoric acid to Aqaba port where special facilities for its storage are under construction.

With the plant now close to completion, IJC’s Verghese is increasingly confident that his construction team of 400 engineers and workers has pulled off a real coup in what one of his project engineers describes as ‘one of the most demanding situations in the world’. ‘If my plant can produce at highest capacity and lowest specific consumption of raw materials, it is a plant to be watched, a plant to be copied,’ Verghese says.

In fact, it could be copied soon, and close to home. For the past year JPMC has been in negotiations with Norway’s Norsk Hydro for a new $400 million joint venture to produce fertilisers. Norsk Hydro provided the hemihydrate technology for the Indo-Jordan project and the new plant is expected to be located at Shidiyeh. ‘If the project goes ahead, Norsk Hydro will have a head start,’ says Idelson.

The Norsk Hydro project is not the only prospect for the area. IJC is currently looking at the feasibility of a $25 million aluminium fluoride plant using fluorine from the existing plant. It also has the option of doubling its phosphoric and sulphuric acid production at a later stage. The plant is only designed for current production targets, but some of the equipment could serve for an expansion project and reduce any further investment costs.

It is estimated that Shidiyeh has sufficient rock phosphate reserves to meet the current known level of demand for the next 100 years and IJC’s current project, and the others on the drawing board, should ensure its emergence as the one of the world’s most unlikely industrial centres.