Value addition of Lanka Salt

Sri Lanka is an island nation having a large periphery of ocean that falls under its jurisdiction. Ocean holds unlimited resources and salt is one of its prime commodities, which can be easily exploited with minimum effort. Since the island is surrounded with a large ocean, sea salt in it could be identified as an almost inexhaustible resource. Sri Lanka is blessed with a temperate climate throughout the year. As such, sea salt can be produced using natural sunlight allowing for the seasonal (monsoonal) changes. Theoretically, during this process both the source material (sea water) and the energy source (sunlight) are absolutely free, a favourable condition hardly found in other industries.

 Salt is a biological necessity of human life and had been used by humans sincelanka salt prehistoric era. As such, salt is a much sought after commodity throughout the world and it had been interlinked with the daily lives of people since ancient times. For most people in Sri Lanka the word salt implies merely the white granules. Generally salt is a substance sought-after by human tasty buds whenever they consume food to gratify their hunger, but other than that they should be aware of so many diverse uses of salt. Salt is an essential part in the diet of humans as well as animals. On the other hand, plants too need salt for their proper growth. Salt is used since prehistoric times as a very effective and widely used food preservative. Even today the fishermen are using salt to treat fish for later use. In addition, people use salt for multiple purposes such as animal feed, fertilizer, cosmetics, medicine, etc.

Most people are unaware that only around 6% of salt is used as a seasoning or a preservative in food and beverage industries. So the rest is used in a vast array of industries. The assumption is that salt has some 14,000 uses in industries such as plastic, paper, glass, polyester, rubber and fertilizers along with household bleaches, soaps, detergents and dyes. Salt is a raw material for a number of secondary industrial products such as magnesia, potash, magnesium sulphate and gypsum that are used in some other industries.

It is possible to produce Lanka salt at a very low cost due to the facts that Sri Lanka being an island is surrounded by the Indian Ocean and is blessed with a temperate climate throughout the year. This is one of the rare occasions having both the raw green lipped mussel material (sea water) and the energy source totally free.

Yet, it is surprising to note that people in Sri Lanka still fail to identify the economic importance of this valuable resource. This unawareness is emphasized by the fact that some amount of salt is still being imported from elsewhere. The country is surrounded with salt water; therefore, theoretically the salt production is a possibility around the entire country (coastal areas). Anyhow two areas of the country such as Hambantota and Puttalam are famous for Lanka salt for ages. There are several salterns existing in Hambantota area and they produce nearly 30% of the total salt production of the country.

The other most famous salterns lie in Puttalam district and are accountable for a substantial percentage of the country’s salt production. There are some salterns found in the Northern regions too. Most of these salterns exploit sea water (brine) and the natural energy of the sun to produce salt. As such, the only hindrance is the climatic inconsistency. Besides, the requirement of a greater number of workers is also a major drawback.

Fortunately, in the recent past some private entrepreneurs too have come to the forefront to invest in salt manufacturing. Recently one company declared that it had begun commercial production of salt adapting pure vacuum dried (PVD) technology. They affirmed that salt could be produced 100 % free from any impurities using this technology. If this trend continues and if an increasing number of private entrepreneurs happen to invest in salt, it would be very healthy for the country’s economy.

The other noteworthy feature is that even during the conventional salt production locals are unaware of some important highly valuable elements that result during salt production. These are allowed to get back to the sea without exploiting them for any profitable use. One such product called bittern, very bitter-tasting solution that remains after evaporation and crystallization of salt, fetches a very high price compared to common salt. It is also a commercial source of magnesium compounds especially magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts). In addition, very common and important chemical called gypsum is solidified in intermediate ponds, but Lankans so far do not extract this product, nevertheless, spent lot of money to export gypsum for fertilizer, construction and health sector industries. Plaster of Paris resulting from heating the mineral gypsum is also invaluable as a material to be modified as casts in the treatment of bone fractures in orthopedic medicine.

Now it is known that lithium too can be extracted from sea water. The lithium-rich sea water is pumped into solar evaporation ponds and processed very similar to the process of common salt production. As a result of the launching of hybrid cars lithium became a highlylanka salt sought after commodity and these days its price is skyrocketing because these cars are using lithium batteries. Now lithium is considered the power storage medium of the next generation. If Sri Lanka can produce lithium out of its sea water it could easily find export markets as well and surely can fetch an exorbitant income.

In the recent past there was an establishment called Paranthan Chemical Factory but unfortunately it was destroyed during the war.  This factory was capable of producing several valuable chemicals by using salt solution as a primary source material. As most people know electrolysis of salt water gives rise to a valuable chemical known as sodium hydroxide. During this process hydrogen and chlorine are also produced as by products. All these are very valuable chemicals, which can be used in a variety of industries, especially, in hi-tech industries. As such, it is time to either reopen this establishment or encourage the private sector to venture into this type of sea water based chemical industries.

In recent times the world has stepped on to a nano-age. As such, scientists have identified that most of 14,000 salt based industries fall within high-tech category. Even with all these technological advances it is surprising to note that Sri Lanka had not yet identified the economic importance of this valuable resource. This resource can yield exorbitant profits in the future, provided it is properly handled for the production of hi-tech goods; thereby, Lanka can earn substantial export earnings.

Dr. Prashan Francis




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One Comment:

  1. NIce article…

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