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Apatite for growth

The smelter at Apatity with the author (Glasby) pictured in the foreground. The smelter complex extends a long way into the background. Only the smelter on the left is in action.

Image: The smelter at Apatity with the author (Glasby) pictured in the foreground. The smelter complex extends a long way into the background. Only the smelter on the left is in action.

Phosphate deposits of the Kola Peninsula, Arctic Russia, are an important resource for the future, say Yuri Voytekhovsky* and Geoff Glasby FGS

Geoscientist 21.07 August 2011

 In the Khibiny Mountains of northern Russia between 1923 and 1925, the great Soviet geochemist A E Fersman1 and colleagues discovered large apatite (calcium phosphate) deposits. Exploitation began in 1929, and has been a major industry ever since. In 1934, two million tonnes (Mt) of apatite-nepheline rocks were being mined each year as source material for fertilizers. Currently, two major mining groups exploit these huge deposits; Kovdor GOK OAO and Apatit OAO, and in 1990, apatite ore reserves were estimated to be in excess of 828Mt. Present evidence suggests that the phosphate industry in the aptly named city of Apatity has at least another 50 years of life left in it.

The Kola Peninsula, where the Khibiny Mountains stand, is one of Russia’s most important sources of economic minerals, with deposits of iron, copper-nickel, other non-ferrous and rare metals, phosphate, mica, clays, and many other types of minerals2.The Kola Peninsula is perhaps best known among geologists for the Kola Superdeep Borehole (SG-3), a massive Soviet science project that drilled to a depth of 12,261m between 1970 and 1984. This was the only time that a borehole has penetrated to such a depth, 1km deeper than the Marianas Trench3. Drilling to such a depth in the Earth’s crust has never been repeated.

However the geoscientific history of the region really began with Fersman and the building, in 1929, of the first railhead. A site was chosen for a future town around the projected mines. Enrichment plants were constructed and the townships of Apatity and Kirosk founded. Bringing ore deposits of this magnitude into play in this remote region posed huge logistical problems; and yet only five years after the foundation of an industrial combine in 1929, the infrastructure of processing plants necessary to process these deposits was all in place.

The Khibiny complex is the largest alkaline intrusion in the world with an area of 1327 km2 and is centred on 67° 52'N and 33° 35'E It is essentially a ring complex some 40km in diameter composed of nepheline syenites, which are divided into several types mainly on the basis of textural and structural features3. Eight intrusive phases have been recognised. The complex consists of a central ring of melteigite-urtite, which is younger than the main nepheline syenites and was emplaced along major faults at 360-380Ma. Lenses rich in apatite occur within the urtite.

Six of these lenses are presently mined in enormous open-cast pits or in underground mines where the near surface ores are exhausted. Normally about 11Mt of ore are mined from these deposits each year. This constitutes about 8% of total world phosphate production. However, output declined by almost 20% in the first quarter of 2009 as a result of the world recession and production of nepheline concentrate ceased when its only customer, the Pikalevsk Alumina Refinery Plant, was closed. Nonetheless, if one visits the Apatity phosphate plant today, one will see trains each of 30 large carriages exporting phosphate ore several times a day.

The smelter at Apatity with one chimney in action. The smelter was working at less than full capacity in May to July 2009 as a result of the downturn in the world economy in early 2009. The slow drift of the smoke reflects the calm weather.

Image: The smelter at Apatity with one chimney in action. The smelter was working at less than full capacity in May to July 2009 as a result of the downturn in the world economy in early 2009. The slow drift of the smoke reflects the calm weather. The huge building in the background is the processing plant. It has direct rail connections to the rest of Russia.


Investigation of these minerals led to the intensive development of the chemical feedstock mining industry in Russia. Exploitation also led to the rapid growth of new settlements, one of which grew to 10,000 souls. A feed-stock mining combine was also built, for which in 1931, the name Khibinogorsk was proposed. It was later renamed in Kirovsk in 1934 (after Sergey Kirov, assassinated in 1936 on the direct orders of Stalin. Kirov had initiated the phosphate mining, employing prisoners and slave labour 1.)

The first phosphate ore was recovered in 1930. In the following year, a mining-and-processing integrated works (ANOF-1) started operating. The first hydroelectric power plant, at Niva (Niva-1), provided the region with a sustainable energy supply. The Khibiny became a centre for scientific research, when a mountain station was established there in 1930 by the USSR Academy of Sciences. The Kola Research base was later transformed into the Kola Branch of the Russian Academy of Science in 1937, and is now the Kola Science Centre (KSC) of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), Apatity at 67°N 35’E.

The Kola Peninsula is the main source of phosphate for fertilizer production in Russia, comprising five types of multi-component apatite ores. The basis of these resources is the apatite-nepheline ores (Khibiny Mountains) containing 45-50% apatite, 35-40% nepheline, 6-10% aegirine, up to 2.5 % titanite and about 2% titanium-magnetite. Rich ores with a P2O5 content of up to 27% make up one-third of the deposits, and poor grade ores up to 10%. Other known deposits of apatite-magnetite and apatite-staffelite ores are found in the Kovdor area in the west of the region. Eleven deposits have been discovered in the area; seven of which boast currently producing mines. Total quantities of apatite ore in 1990 were estimated at 1087 million tonnes of P205, 687 million tonnes of which were proven resources5. (There is, however, some discrepancy between the available estimates of Russia’s mineral reserves, so these figures should be treated with caution. Luzin et al. for example inferred reserves of apatite in Russia (1990) at 11,000Mt, of which 670Mt were proven, with an average grade of 9-27%2.)

The cooling towers at Apatity with the smelter and Khibiny Mountains in the background.

Image: The cooling towers at Apatity with the smelter and Khibiny Mountains in the background.


Whatever the disagreements, one thing is certain - Russia holds huge reserves of phosphate feedstock, from 19 apatite and 32 phosphorite deposits located in the two principal areas of Khibiny and Kovdor, which together with the Lovozero deposit, make up 92.5% of all phosphate reserves in Russia7.

The Khibiny Group is associated with the world’s largest nepheline syenite intrusion and includes six active and four reserve deposits together making up three ore fields, namely the Southwestern, Southeastern and Northwestern fields.

The Southwestern ore field consists of four active and one inactive deposit which constitute parts of a sheet-like ore body which can be traced 12km along strike and 3.5km along dip. The P205 content of this ore is up to 14.8%. The Southeastern ore field consists of the Oleniy ruchei deposit which is planned to be mined in the near future. The ore field is 12km long and varies in thickness from 300 to 700m. All the deposits have complex geological structures and consist of multilevel ore zones. P205 content ranges from 7.5 to 14.0%. The Northwestern ore field includes the Partomchorr deposit, also planned to be mined in the near future. The mineralised zones have been traced for 6km and represent multilevel ore bodies 16-38m thick separated by urtite interlayers 50m thick. The apatite ore falls within 30% of the bulk ore. The average P205 content of the ore is 7.5%.

Phosphate is not their only treasure, however; the deposits also contain Ti, Zr, REE, Nb, V, Hf, Rb, Sr and F in minable amounts. Moreover, the dumps and tailings from old inefficient processing plants are now minable sources of phosphate.

The Kovdor Group is a complex of baddeleyite-apatite-magnetite and apatite-staffelite deposits confined to the Kovdor intrusion and is composed of alkaline ultramafic rocks, foidolites and carbonatites. The Kovdor intrusion in the SW Kola Peninsula bears phosphate ore deposits mainly in the western marginal part of the intrusion and partly outside its limits. The apatite concentrate is produced from the baddeleyite-apatite-magnetite ore as a byproduct (up to 38.2% P205). The P205 content in the primary ore does not exceed 7%. The total active reserves are equivalent to 25.6Mt of P205.

The apatite-staffelite weathering crusts occur in the areal and linear carbonatites. There are 4 large troughs with an area of (200-500 x 120-300 m) and a depth of 120-130 m separated by uplifted areas that can be traced along the contact intrusion for 3km located within the structure of the ore body. Rich apatite-staffelite ores containing up to 20% P205 are commonly found in the top horizons of the carbonatite bodies. The average P205 content is 15.7%. It is also planned to produce iron concentrate in addition to the phosphate concentrate.

The complex extends a long way into the background and occupies a large area. It is connected by rail (see right foreground) to the rest of Russia.

Image: The complex extends a long way into the background and occupies a large area. It is connected by rail (see right foreground) to the rest of Russia.


The problems encountered in mining at Apatity have been well described by Paul Moore8. Two main companies currently mine and process the phosphates of the Kola Peninsula - Kovdor GOK OAO and Apatit OAO.
Kovdor GOK OAO exploits deposits of complex baddeleyite-apatite-magnetite ores, low-grade iron-apatite ores and wet magnetic separation wastes which were created before the commissioning of the apatite-addeleyite processing plant in 1976. It alsot has a reserve deposit of apatite-staffelite ore. The company exploits the complex baddeleyite-apatite-magnetite ore deposit (25.4% Fe and 7.3 % P205) in open pits with a design capacity of 16Mt.

Ores are processed by a combination of magnetogravity and flotation techniques. The output of commercial magnetite, apatite and baddeleyite concentrates in 2007 was 5.2Mt, 2.5Mt and 7.4Mt, respectively. Wet magnetic separation of old wastes was initiated in 1995 to expand the output of apatite and baddeleyite concentrates. The man-made “deposit” can be exploited for another years at a rate of extraction 4Mt a year.

The main open pit is presently 350m deep (140 m above sea level). Remaining reserves amount to about 300Mt, so in 2007, plans were made to develop the main open pit doen to 850m, ensuring production to 2050. Kovdor has now started implementing development of the apatite-staffelite deposit that occurs close to the main open pit. This will allow the mining of 50Mt of ore (16% P205) and ensures additional production of apatite concentrate of 50Mt per year.

Apatit OAO is the largest apatite-nepheline extracting and processing company in the world. Mining the Khibiny group apatite, extraction exceeds 80% - and of baddeleyite constitutes almost 100% - of Russia’s total output. The reserves of six active deposits (Kukisvumchorr, Yukspor, Apatite circus, Rasvumchorr plateau, Koashva and Njorkpakh) are developed in open pits and underground mines (four mines being the combined Kirovsk, Rasvumchorr, Central and Eastern ones) containing 2.1 Gt of ore (average P2O5 content of 14.7%) (of which only 15% can be mined in open pits). The total annual output of these mines is 28-30Mt of ore containing on average 13-14% P205.

The ore is processed at two apatite-nepheline-enrichment plants (ANOF-II and ANOF-III) in Apatity and Kirovsk. Wastes are transported and stored at tailing dumps using a system which recycles its water supply. Annually, the company produces 8.5-9.0Mt of apatite (39% P205) and 0.9-1.0Mt of nepheline (28.5% Al2O3) concentrates.
Decisions on how to develop these deposits in the future are still pending. Preparation of underground reserves for mining is quite costly in time and money. To upgrade the efficiency of ore production in the Khibiny area, plants will need to be built in the Murmansk region, where the apatite and nepheline concentrates can be further processed to produce phosphoric acid and alumina and to carry out technological investigations and research into new products.


A recent initiative is the development of the Oleniy Ruchei deposit which is located in the Khibiny Mountains and is being managed by the Northwest Phosphorus Company, a subsidiary of Akron OAO. It is intended to develop an open pit mine and first stage processing plant in 2012 with an annual output of 2Mt of apatite concentrate for the Russian fertilizer industry. By 2018, an underground mining and second stage processing plant will be in operation. This will end the monopoly of Apatite OAO which presently dominates the market.

Based on the present evidence, the phosphate industry in Russia looks set to remain a major industry in Russia for at least the next 50 years.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of A F Karpuzov, A V Lebedev and V A Zhiknova and V A Korovkin. Editing and some additional reporting by Sue Bowler and Ted Nield.


  1. Glasby, G.P. 2007. Fersman and the Kola Penisula. Geoscientist 18 (7): 20-25.
  2. Luzin, G.P., Pretes, M. and Vasiliev, V.V. 1994. The Kola Peninsula: Geography, History and Resources. Arctic 47: 1-15.
  3. Ilyin, A.V. 2005. Apatite deposits in the Khibiny and Kovdor alkaline igneous complexes, Kola Peninsula, Northwestern Russia. In A. J. G. Notholt, R. P. Sheldon, D. F. Davidson (Eds) 2005. Phosphate deposits of the world: Volume 2, Phosphate Rock Resources, Volume 2, pp. 485-494.
  4. Kozlovsky, Ye. A. 2007. The superdeep well of the Kola Peninsula. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.
  5. INSTITUTE OF ECONOMIC PROBLEMS (IEP) 1992. Unpublished estimates. Institute of Economic Problems, Kola Science Centre, Apatity.
  6. Karpuzov, A.F., Lebedev, A.V., Zhitnikov, V.A. and Korovkin, V.A. 2008.Mineral resources of solid minerals. Mineral Resources of Russia, pp. 66-80.
  7. Glasby, G.P. & Voytekhovsky Y, Arctic minerals and mineral resources. Geoscientist 20.08 August 2010

* Y. Voytekhovsky is Professor in the Russian Academy of Sciences, 14 Fersman Street, Apatity, Murmansk Region, 184 209 Russia