Phosphate Research Areas

There are four main areas of Florida phosphate research within the FIPR Institute:

Mining and Beneficiation:

The FIPR Institute’s research in the areas of mining and beneficiation (mineral processing) concentrates on issues pertaining to the mining of phosphate rock and beneficiation of phosphate ore (matrix), which separates the valuable phosphate rock from waste clay and sand. According to the FIPR Institute’s legislative mandate, the Institute’s research should develop technology to help Florida’s phosphate industry become more efficient and environmentally sound.

The Institute has funded research addressing issues and topics such as current mining practices; pipeline and pump design; matrix transportation; online sensors to analyze phosphate materials; land use evaluation and planning; flotation efficiency; dolomite separation; dewatering of phosphatic clay; and process control.

As phosphate mining moves south from the Bone Valley mining core in Polk County, the land has much more dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate), which causes problems when the phosphate is processed into the phosphoric acid used in fertilizers. This has made finding ways to separate the dolomite from the phosphate a research priority for the FIPR Institute. Another research focus in the beneficiation area is to streamline the flotation process and reduce the number or amount of reagents (chemicals) used to separate the sand and clay from the phosphate rock after it is mined. The Institute is also looking for ways to use computerized technology to control the beneficiation process.

Dealing with the clay that is separated from the phosphate is another FIPR Institute beneficiation research program priority. Much of what is known about phosphatic clay and the ponds where it is stored stems from FIPR-funded research. The ponds where the waste clays are dumped after they are separated from the ore cover more than 100,000 acres in Florida’s mining regions and it can take three to five years for a full settling area to crust into a land form that can be used – and even then its use is limited since the clay below the crust is the consistency of pudding. This area of research is of particular interest as phosphate companies try to get new mining sites permitted and face community opposition. One concern is that up to 40 percent of the land that has been mined is being left in clay settling areas.

Chemical Processing:

This FIPR Institute research area concentrates on issues pertaining to the chemical processing of phosphate rock into fertilizer products – an industry that has grown dramatically during the past 60 years. Since opening in 1978, a key focus of the Institute has been on phosphogypsum, a by-product that is produced along with the industry‚Äôs fertilizer products. FIPR has funded research to understand phosphogypsum’s engineering properties; environmental impacts; and potential use as a roadbase material, a commercial sulfur source, an agricultural soil amendment, a construction material and a covering for landfills that would hasten decomposition and extend a landfill’s life.

Regulations require phosphogypsum to be stored in stacks adjacent to the fertilizer production facilities. There are also large quantities of acidic process water stored and circulated between the stack and the chemical plant. Institute research has attempted to minimize any associated environmental impact.

The Institute has continuously facilitated discussion among decision makers on the risks and benefits of putting phosphogypsum to use rather than having it remain in stacks. FIPR routinely provides scientific input and data to the ongoing technical dialogue with the U.S. EPA to resolve issues associated with the agency’s current rules requiring phosphogypsum to be stacked.

Examples of other issues that have been investigated in this area are: controlling dust connected to fertilizer processing and transportation; minimizing the impact of magnesium on the processing of rock being mined in the southern part of the phosphate district where there is a high concentration of dolomite; finding more efficient and environmentally friendly ways to transport materials; developing process controls and techniques that reduce the amount of phosphogypsum generated, and increasing the quality of phosphoric acid produced.

Reclamation:

The public desires and the law requires that land disturbed by phosphate mining and processing must be restored to a useful condition, and in some cases to the point where the ecological systems function like they did before the land was mined. This area of research also includes finding the best ways to reclaim land for more intensive human uses, to minimize environmental hazards, and to improve aesthetics.

Since opening, the Institute has funded research to find out what it takes to reclaim lakes, streams, wetlands, dry uplands, scrub habitat, forested areas, and phosphatic clay settling areas. This includes studying wildlife, vegetation, hydrology, and soils. The FIPR Institute’s reclamation research also addresses phosphogypsum stack closure issues such as economical and effective ways to establish vegetation on the stacks. The FIPR Institute has also studied ways to use reclaimed lands for agricultural purposes and has put on a number of symposiums and conferences related to all reclamation issues.

As time moves on and reclamation projects mature, reclamation research builds on what has been learned and practiced since 1975. Issues and topics include restoring ecological systems such as uplands, wetlands, lakes and streams, but research also focuses on water quality and quantity issues connected to restoring the essential hydrologic functions and balances of surface and groundwater systems. A research focus in this area includes evaluating the impact of clay settling areas on area water quality and quantity. FIPR Institute research also tracks how reclaimed areas are evolving and looks at techniques to improve habitat and minimize the use of herbicides and other artificial maintenance. Reclamation research also continues to look at what can be done with phosphatic clay and clay settling areas.

Public and Environmental Health:

Conducting research that will help protect the health of Florida citizens and the environment is key to the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute mission. As such, the FIPR Institute’s Public and Environmental Health research is concerned with issues such as waste disposal, environmental radioactivity, and the possibilities of air and water pollution. In fact, the Institute insists that research in all areas must at a minimum do no harm to the environment, and preferably benefit the environment and people of Florida.

The FIPR Institute’s research in this area has covered everything from surveying radon levels in every county in the state and evaluating the best way to build a radon-resistant house to studying how radionuclides impact groundwater, wildlife and foods grown on phosphate lands. Consequently, we now have very good information about radiation doses to workers, effects on the health of workers over their lifetimes, natural and mined land characteristics, public radiation exposures, radon mitigation techniques, and safe uses of phosphogypsum. For that reason, future research in this area will mainly consist of updates when significant changes occur, filling the small knowledge gaps, and education of the public.

A number of projects not related to radioactivity have been completed, including dust control in the industry, worker exposures to sulfuric acid mist, measurement of acidic aerosol concentrations, mosquito control at mined areas, and noise and vibration associated with mining activities. Research in this area has also looked at the safety of consuming fish caught in lakes made from phosphate mining pits.

Areas of special interest include the environmental impact of flotation reagents, air pollution from processing operations, the storage/handling of phosphogypsum, and surface and aquifer water contamination by fluorides, acids, heavy metals, and radionuclides. As the other research areas develop technologies to deal with process water, phosphogypsum, clay settling areas and phosphatic clays, the Public and Environmental Health research area will encourage and conduct research on the effects of those technologies. In addition, baseline information should be gathered on sites that will be mined in the future so the impacts of mining can be evaluated.

One of the biggest services the FIPR Institute provides in this area is expert education on radiation and evaluation of radiation concerns, both in general and as they specifically apply to Florida. Educational initiatives include production of instructional videos and interactive computer programs. While using different techniques, both videos and software inform people about radioactivity and how radiation in the environment affects living things, and how the radiation risks of working or living in the phosphate region compare to other everyday risks in their lives.