In The Spotlight: WMU Helps Michigan (Re)discover Multibillion-Dollar Mineral Resource

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From left, William B.  Harrison III, professor emeritus of geosciences at Western Michigan University, Theodore A. Pagano, potash geologist, and Linda Harrison, an administrator at WMU's Geological Repository for Research and Education, examining core samples in WMU's research facility.  WMU photo.

From left, William B. Harrison III, professor emeritus of geosciences at Western Michigan University, Theodore A. Pagano, potash geologist, and Linda Harrison, an administrator at WMU’s Geological Repository for Research and Education, examining core samples in WMU’s research facility. WMU photo.

Rediscovery of a long-forgotten mineral deposit located under two West Michigan counties is set to spark a new multibillion industry in Michigan that will quickly position the state as the nation’s leading source for a critical agricultural tool that is in demand internationally.

Potash — potassium chloride — is an essential plant nutrient and critical ingredient in fertilizer. Currently mined in only three locations in the nation, supplies are dwindling and prices skyrocketing. Now, one of the highest-quality potash ore deposits in the world has been identified below the surface of West Michigan.

The discovery was made by using the treasure trove of geologic data that is housed at Western Michigan University’s Michigan Geological Repository for Research and Education. The result of the rediscovery, say geologists, will be the introduction of a new industry in Michigan worth as much as $65 billion, easily surpassing the state’s historical oil and gas production revenues and triggering explosive job growth in Osceola and Mecosta counties.

“This is conceivably one of Michigan’s most valuable resources,” said Theodore A. Pagano, a potash geologist, engineer and general manager of Michigan Potash Co. LLC. That firm now controls the rediscovered potassium ore reserve called the Borgen Bed that lies under more than 14,500 acres in the two counties. His company has worked quietly over the past three years to ensure the reserve could be technically, economically and logistically put into production and compete head to head with the New Mexico and western Canadian mines that are now the major North American sources of potash.

“This is the United States’ only shovel-ready potash project,” Pagano said. “Michigan is New Mexico untapped. What we’re looking at is the introduction of an industry that is critical to the economic health of the state. We’ll be producing a Michigan product for Michigan farmers that would dramatically reduce the expensive transport costs on the more than 300,000 tons of potash consumed in our state annually.”

Verification of the quality and amount of the potash in the Borgen Bed was done by using core samples provided by WMU geologists under the direction of Dr. William B. Harrison III, professor emeritus of geosciences and director of his department’s Geological Repository for Research and Education, which is also now the permanent home to the Michigan Geological Survey.

In 2008, Harrison and his wife, Linda, an administrator with the repository, came into possession of geologic core samples collected in the early 1980s when a Canadian company was prospecting for potash in Michigan. That company established a mine and small processing plant in Michigan but pulled back from fully commercializing the deposit. Over the years, changing business plans and corporate mergers pushed the Michigan operation into the background, and mineral leases for the area lapsed. The sample cores came to WMU by chance and were added into the University’s statewide collection of core samples.

“Without Bill and Linda Harrison, Michigan and the United States would be without the rediscovery of a multi-billion dollar potash deposit,” said Pagano, adding that he learned through industry sources that the Harrisons might be able to help him in his quest to define the scope and quality of the Borgen Bed.

Potash is found in just a few areas once covered by inland seas. The seas evaporated and the potassium and sodium chloride deposits crystallized into potash ore and were covered by successive layers of rock and soil.

The Michigan deposit, WMU’s Harrison said, is the purest and highest-grade potash being produced globally — 600 percent higher than that being produced in New Mexico’s vast Permian Basin. It is also twice the grade of deposits found in Canada and Russia, the two nations that control more than 80 percent of the world’s potash reserve.

“One of the things that makes this so valuable is that it is an incredibly rich deposit that is in easy reach of the enormous demand from Midwest corn and soybean farmers who operate within a 500-mile radius of this deposit.” Harrison said. “This is an opportunity for new wealth to come from the use of natural resources never tapped before.”

This Spotlight feature is sponsored by Western Michigan University. More at http://www.wmich.edu.

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