Pakistan is endowed with enormous wealth of mineral resources that present extensive potential for playing a critical role in achieving socioeconomic development. Sadly, the mineral sector, in general, has been neglected by successive governments. Huge resources of minerals across the country remain commercially unexploited for lack of infrastructure, mechanized methods, advanced skills, and capital, which has restricted its further growth.
Barite, or baryte, classified as ceramic mineral, is an important industrial mineral found abundantly in Pakistan. Chemically, it consists of crystals of barium sulphate, i.e. sulphate mineral with rich barium. It has high specific gravity, and it is insoluble in water and acids, chemically and physically non-reactive, non-toxic and non-magnetic. Barite is predominantly used in the oil and gas industry as barium mud or cement for drilling operations. Industrial uses of barite are in paints, textiles, paper, rubber, plastics, medicines, cosmetics, and glass manufacturing, and for value-addition in cars and electronics, and television-screens, radiation shielding, electroplating and soldering processes, and other applications. Barite can absorb gamma radiation and x-rays, and is an environmentally-friendly mineral. Also called ‘heavy spar’, it has application in radiology for x-ray examination of the digestive system as an absorber of radiation.
The global barite market is growing, expected to increase from $1.95 billion in 2022 to $2.19 billion this year. Currently, total world production is 7.3 million tons annually, of which 80pc is used in the oil industry, 10pc in chemicals, 9pc in other industries, and 1pc in construction. The largest barite producing countries are China, India, and Morocco, whereas Pakistan ranks 14th with mine production of about 52,000 tons in 2022. In 2017, Pakistan was one of the world’s leading producers of barite and its derivatives. Unfortunately, increase in barite production in successive years has been too slow, and remained static for many years. In fact, barite production in Pakistan has been decreasing over the years. Since 2008 to 2012, barite production has been in the range of 52,000 to 56,500 tons annually, except in 2017 when production registered a growth of 75,000 tons, but dropped to 50,000 tons annually in succeeding years.
Total global barite reserves are about two billion tons, of which 740 million tons are identified. The largest barite deposits are in Iran with estimated reserves of about 100 million tons. Pakistan possesses over 40 million tons of inferred reserves, out of which 14 million tons of medium to high grade barite reserves are proven, contributing 2pc to the world reserves. The principal deposits are found at Bankhri (Lasbela), Kudni (Lasbela), Gunga (Khuzdar), Koh-e-Sultan (Chaghai) and Duddar in Balochistan, several places in Haripur (Kohala and Kachhi deposits) and Swat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and at Mianwali-Katha in Punjab. These barites are known for high brightness and found as colourless, white, yellow, orange, red, purple, pink, brown, blue, green, grey, black and multi-coloured, and therefore often considered semi-precious gemstones. A famous form of barite is the barite desert rose or “rose rock” found in the USA. Barite in Pakistan is extracted both from surface and underground mining. Further processing of grading, grinding and micronizing is done by simple physical methods. It is supplied in a variety of forms as barite ore (crude) lumps or powder, after removal of impurities like quartz, calcite and traces of metallic minerals.
Barite was first discovered in 1956, and investigated in the 1960s-1970s, at Gunga, District Khuzdar-- the single largest deposit originally estimated to contain 1.4 million tons of reserves. Now, the 300-km long Khuzdar-Lasbela belt alone has been identified as hosting reserves of about 11 million tons of barite. Exploration and evaluation of new deposits of barite in Haripur District, Hazara and in Lasbela and Khuzdar Districts is ongoing though at a slow pace.
The private sector has installed a few small-scale crushing plants in these locations. Bolan Mining Enterprises, a joint venture of the Government of Balochistan and Pakistan Petroleum Ltd, has a barite mine-lease spread over 316 acres in Gunga (Khuzdar) with proven reserves of 5 million ton of barite, and operates a grinding/milling plant to produce daily average 1,000 tons that provides oil drilling barite according to American Petroleum Institute (API) specifications.
An extensive lead-zinc-barite mineralization belt has also been discovered in Lasbela, Balochistan. In March 2008, the company acquired a license for exploration of barite, lead, and zinc over 177,600 acres in the same region (barite is a co-product of lead and zinc mining). Though the economic viability of the project has been established for a long time, commercial production of the minerals has been delayed. Indeed, commercial exploitation of fairly large deposits of barite provides an excellent opportunity for potentially being self-sufficient in this important mineral and also earning foreign exchange through exports and attracting domestic and foreign investments. Barite deposits are significant and suitably located for large-scale production. Yet barite’s extraction and production are neither proportionate to its deposits nor commensurate with the varied applications in industry; the domestic demand of which is being largely met through imports.
China and India are major exporters of barite. The USA is the largest consumer of barite, with 3.4 million tons per year, including domestic production and imports. Major consumption, besides the countries that produce barite, is recorded in the Middle East, Asia Pacific and African countries. Globally, there is an ongoing interest in developing new sources of barite due to its rising prices in recent years, and Pakistan should exploit the opportunity fully. Pakistan exports barite lump and powder mainly to Oman, the UAE, and South Korea, but at very low price and in small quantities as its quality is not of international standards. To improve the quality of barite to international standards for manufacturing of high-quality products, beneficiation of raw barite is necessary, so that concentration of impurities is reduced to a large extent. Drilling grade barite of API specifications has an international FOB price in the range of $140-$250 per ton, linked to its purity, source, characteristics, and quantity. On the other hand, Pakistan sells barite lumps and powder at much lower price. In 2021, Pakistan exported 136,568 tons of barite earning $ 9,868,000. Price of high-quality barite for industrial applications is as high as $650 per ton in the international market.
Availability of large quantity and high-quality barite reserves, coupled with its growing demand in the export market, make this subsector very attractive for investment, if an effectively projected and conducive environment is created. Therefore, the exploration, exploitation and development of barite reserves and optimizing its production long-term should be one of the priority objectives of the government under the present socio economic scenario.
– The writer is retired chairman of the State Engineering Corporation