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Whenever Putin Visits Pikalyovo

Some 12 years have passed since Vladimir Putin's visit to Pikalyovo, also remembered for the epic 'Give me back my pen' moment, which happened during the meeting with Oleg Deripaska. The pressing social issues that caused Leningrad Oblast residents to block the federal highway are no longer relevant, whilst the local alumina refinery has become profitable. Initially, production lines of the enterprise founded back in the USSR failed to operate successfully due to being taken over by different owners. Everything is under control now, but what if the same situation could happen again? Finally, how come Pikalyovo has turned into a single-industry town, with its inhabitants' well-being depending on the economic efficiency of several businesses

Aluminium at any price

In the West, aluminium has been one of the most sought-after metals since the end of the 19th century, and it took the industry just a few decades to establish itself. This robust and corrosion-resistant element, which does not rust even in prolonged contact with moisture, has revolutionised construction, the automotive industry, instrumentation and many other sectors.

But this was not the case in Russia. Despite economic achievements on the eve of World War I, we were buying aluminium from abroad as there was no domestic production. Therefore, one of the main goals was to establish our production facilities.

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In 1932, the Volkhov aluminium smelter produced its first batch. In this way, the Soviet state could bridge over half a century of lagging behind the West and break the dependence on imports in this sector. However, it soon became evident that there was a catastrophic shortage of quality raw materials for metal production - the bauxite deposits in the country turned out to be too insignificant to meet the demand of the fast-growing industry. A decision was made to use another resource from which alumina and, accordingly, aluminium can be produced - nepheline.

"The highest quality raw material for aluminium production in the world is bauxite. It contains around 50% alumina and only 2% silica, a harmful impurity. Nepheline has an entirely different proportion: approximately 28% alumina and 48% silica. Before using nepheline in the aluminium industry, it needed to be desiliconized, but the technology that made this possible in the mid-20th century was very complex and costly.

Furthermore, it did not entirely solve the problem of aluminium-silicon separation. The processing of nepheline produced alumina from which no high-quality product could be made. Nevertheless, the government's focus on using non-bauxite raw materials when a shortage of bauxite was proper. And the creation of a method for the integrated processing of nepheline into alumina and by-products (soda, potash, cement, gallium) can undoubtedly be called an outstanding achievement of domestic science," said Professor Viktor Sizyakov of the Metallurgy Department of St. Petersburg Mining University.

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The alumina refinery in Pikalyovo, which obtains its raw materials from the Murmansk region, where the apatite-nepheline ore is mined, began production in 1959. Its products were sent to the Volkhov Aluminum Smelter and several other industries, in particular, to Pikalevsky Cement. This company switched to new technology and started using nepheline sludge, a by-product of alumina production, as a resource base instead of clay.

Scientific breakthrough

In the second half of the seventies, it became clear that the existing method of alumina production by processing nepheline could not produce the high-quality aluminium needed for the aerospace industry, aircraft manufacturing and several other industries. The demand for the highest grade metal was so great that meetings dedicated to the issue were held in the office of Alexei Kosygin, Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers.

The task of making a scientific breakthrough in the industry was set for the scientists of the Plekhanov Leningrad Institute (now St. Petersburg Mining University). Professor Victor Sizyakov solved the problem by proposing to introduce the technology of complete separation of aluminium and silicon based on the synthesis of a new class of super active ion exchangers - hydrafed calcium carboaluminates in a medium of strong electrolytes.

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"Implementation of this innovation allowed not only to reduce synthesis time from 4 months to 40 minutes but also to obtain alumina of the highest grades unparalleled in the world from low-quality raw materials. The content of harmful silicon impurities in the final product was only 0.01%. Moreover, the technology's profitability increased by 2-2.5 times which created the prerequisites to increase nepheline processing from 1.2 to 2.5 million tonnes annually," the scientist said.

One of the benefits of his innovation is using it in a wide range of domestic industries to produce higher quality goods than before. These include fast-hardening types of cement, a carboaluminate sealant used in the construction of waterlogged sections of the metro in St Petersburg. It is also a coagulant, which is necessary for cleaning industrial effluents of enterprises from harmful impurities of complicated composition. It is impossible not to mention composite materials for oil and gas well plugging in permafrost conditions and many others. There are about 20 items on the list.

Speaking of cement, it surpassed all world analogues known at that time in terms of its properties. Its undoubted advantages were the highest strength, lack of "false setting", and low specific consumption in concrete. Pikalevsky Cement products were used in the construction of most of the strategically important facilities of the city on the Neva: the underground, nuclear power plant, Ring Road, levees, port berths and many other structures, including the Nord Stream gas pipeline.

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The Pikalyov plant itself switched to the new technology in 1987. It was also used to modernise the Achinsk plant, the largest in Russia, and produce over a million tons of alumina annually. Around 40% of all alumina in the country today is made using the technology proposed by Professor Sizyakov.

Deripaska's pen

In the noughties, the once unified production chain was sold off piecemeal to different owners. Eurocement bought Pikalyovo Cement, and the alumina refinery became part of Rusal, owned by Oleg Deripaska. The nepheline concentrate came from the Kola Peninsula, from the mining and processing enterprise Apatite.

In 2009 the partners were unable to agree on prices, and as a result, the companies stopped paying wages, made layoffs, and then the production stopped altogether. More than 20 per cent of the city's residents were unemployed and, driven to despair, blocked the federal highway.

Vladimir Putin personally had to solve the regional problem, which suddenly rose to the level of a state problem. He forced the businessmen to come to an amicable agreement and reset their business relations. And his phrase "Just give me my pen back here!", addressed to Deripaska after he signed the cooperation agreement, immediately became a wingnut.

Four days after Putin's visit, Pikalyovo was added to the government list of 75 single-industry towns with the worst socioeconomic situation. A headquarters was set up to restore the town's industrial complex, one of the solutions being the large-scale modernisation of the Pikalyovo alumina refinery, increasing its capacity by 20%. Professor Sizyakov then took part in the scientific support of the project.

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At the end of 2017, after many years of operating in deficit, the plant finally recorded a profit of 129 million roubles. In 2018, it increased almost threefold and amounted to 342 million. There are nearly no reminders of the events of ten years ago in the city. No depression - there are smooth pavements, new playgrounds and sports grounds, plenty of young people and no unemployment.

Nevertheless, the production chain is still owned by different owners. Does this mean that another financial crisis could provoke another round of social tension? The best evidence that this will not happen (or at least that the consequences will not be so dire) is the gradual emergence of Pikalyovo beyond the concept of a 'monocity'.

For example, several agricultural enterprises and an industrial park have sprung up, running successful businesses and providing jobs for the local population. There is no doubt that an increase in the number of such productions, which do not belong to the region's traditional industries, is the best medicine against economic turmoil. And a guarantee that Vladimir Putin will no longer have to fly to the border of the Leningrad and Vologda regions to sort out the consequences of business conflicts between the management of city-forming enterprises.