The Dead Sea Is Really Hopping...And May Turn Up In Your Bathroom

When you think of Sodom, you think of sin, not magnesium. The town is best-known for the Biblical story of Lot, Abraham's nephew, who fled Sodom because of its immoral ways. The Bible says the town on the southern edge of the Dead Sea was destroyed, and, in fact, no one lives there, largely because of the horrific climate. But Sodom has been resurrected in the form of an industrial complex, including a mighty magnesium plant now being built.

The Dead Sea is the lowest point on the face of the earth: more than 400 meters below sea level. And it's as hot as--well, hell, where Sodom's ex-inhabitants presumably reside. Daytime temperatures rarely dip below 40C from May to October. But the Dead Sea is vital to a natural-resource-poor nation. Three companies owned by Israel Chemicals extract minerals there. Exports of materials such as potash and bromine totaled more than $600 million in 1994, about 5% of the country's industrial exports.

SURREALIST. Now, the mineral wealth of the Dead Sea has lured a giant. On June 6, Germany's Volkswagen announced it would join forces with Dead Sea Works Ltd. in the $600 million magnesium project, taking a 35% stake. Today, the site looks like a Surrealist painting, with giant scaffolds rising between the dark blue Dead Sea and the barren, dusty desert mountains.

What attracted Volkswagen to this blasted landscape? Pressure to reduce emissions has led auto makers everywhere to search for ways to build cars from lightweight materials, thus requiring smaller, less polluting engines. "Magnesium will be the metal of the next century," predicts Jens Neumann, a member of Volkswagen's management board. VW is already using magnesium in engine-and-gear boxes in some models.

It just so happens that the waters of the Dead Sea contain the world's largest unexploited reserves of magnesium. However, the high cost of extracting the metal had led Dead Sea Works to all but give up hope of cashing in. Then, in 1991, two Soviet immigrants who joined the company told of a unique Soviet process for extracting magnesium from carnallite, which is available in virtually limitless quantities in the Dead Sea.

Dead Sea Works had previously extracted only potash from carnallite, while the Soviets had only extracted magnesium. Combining the two processes, "we're able to substantially reduce our costs," says Uri Been-Noon, managing director of Dead Sea Works, which is planning to begin production in late 1996. The timing couldn't be better, as automotive industry demand for magnesium is expected to double by the end of the decade.

Just opposite the Sodom complex, on the southeastern edge of the Dead Sea, is the smaller Jordanian potash plant run by Arab Potash Co. For decades the two companies had little contact. In May, the Jordanians sent a high-level delegation to attend the 70th anniversary of Dead Sea Works. In the wake of the Israel-Jordan treaty, the two companies are talking about joint exploitation of what is fast becoming a sea of riches.

Since Sodom's name has been mud for thousands of years, another product from the region seems highly appropriate: Dead Sea mud is fast becoming a hit with cosmetics makers.

Local companies have started marketing their products abroad. They range from face and body packs to creams and cosmetics, and all contain Dead Sea mud or minerals. The companies claim that the minerals are good for the skin because "natural" materials are absorbed more easily. Sales are growing at over 30% a year.

The largest company, Dead Sea Laboratories, manufactures the Ahava line of cosmetics at a kibbutz factory not far from Sodom. DSL began exporting in 1989. Last year, exports hit $4.6 million, and the company expects them to more than double this year.

DSL is a joint venture of Dead Sea Works and local kibbutzim. It has exclusive rights to extract mud and sell raw materials to competitors. The company, with $11.4 million in sales, isn't about to challenge Revlon, but Marketing Coordinator Tammy Lechter cites two selling points: "the trend toward natural cosmetics, combined with the unique properties of the Dead Sea." Indeed, the mystique of mud from this ancient land is helping to make the Dead Sea an ever-livelier place.

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