A WA company producing Sulphate of Potash (SoP) fertiliser in the Little Sandy Desert to replace imports with export product became a step closer last week.
Kalium Lakes Ltd (KLL) plans to produce SoP from brine pumped from under a chain of salt lakes between the Great Northern Highway, south of Newman, and Canning Stock Route, north of Wiluna.
It listed on the WA branch of the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) on Thursday.
The week before, KLL raised $6 million through an over-subscribed public share issue to enable it to continue proving up its inferred 19.8 million tonnes drainable porosity SoP resource at its Beyondie Potash Project some 160 kilometres south east of Newman.
There is an estimated total reserve of 140mt of potassium and sulphur-rich brine beneath the string of salt lakes that comprise the Beyondie project, stretching across a Kumarina pastoral lease held by Pilbara helicopter-piloting cattleman and businessman Brent Smoothy.
Mr Smoothy is KLL's founder and major shareholder.
He came up with the idea of searching beneath the salt lakes for SoP potential after quizzing mining geologists as he flew them to remote sites during the mining boom and development of the Roy Hill mine.
From Sylvania Station, east of Newman, he runs more than 44,000 cattle on Hillside and Panorama stations near Marble Bar, as well as Kumarina, and a 3237 hectare finishing feedlot at Eneabba operated by parents Vince and Gloria.
A helicopter pilot by trade, he also runs Smoothy Helicopter Services with eight helicopters - down from 13 in the mining boom - and earthmoving and construction business Rachlan Holdings Pty Ltd.
Mr Smoothy and wife Rachel headed a contingent of company management and workers who flew down from Newman especially to watch as he rang the bell in the ASX boardroom when KLL appeared on the ASX public company list.
"As soon as we've got New Year's Day out of the way we'll be going in (to the lakes) with a bulldozer to put a track in and following that will be the pumps," Mr Smoothy said.
"We'll be looking at proving up the life of the mine."
He said the processing plant was being designed in Germany by a company with experience in processing SoP.
The plan is to pump brine from ancient water courses below the lakes up to the surface through 40 metres of sand and evaporate the moisture off in shallow ponds leaving behind potassium, sulphur and sodium.
The processing plant will separate out the sodium.
Mr Smoothy said the plan was to produce 150,000 tonnes of SoP a year and export more than 100,000t of it out through Geraldton port 800km away.
He said Geraldton was the preferred port because it would help provide the mine and processing plant with a more stable workforce.
"Port Hedland is actually a little bit closer and would cost less in transport, but workers in Geraldton own their own houses, have families, will drive their own cars to work - it will be better for us in the long run."
As previously reported in Farm Weekly, at least five other WA companies, plus Darwin and Brisbane-based companies are in the race to be first to produce commercial SoP fertiliser in WA.
Prospecting licences, heritage approvals and Native Title agreements have been sought covering many of WA's playa and salt lakes, from the central Wheatbelt through the eastern and northern Goldfields and into the Little Sandy, Great Sandy and Gibson deserts.
Mr Smoothy, who came to the Pilbara in 2000 as a young helicopter pilot mustering cattle, said he was not concerned by the competition.
"We've been conservative and we only quote drainable porosity figures - that's the amount of the resource we can actually get at," he said.
"We made our money finding cattle in places where no one else could.
"We're used to the remoteness.
"Some (potential SoP competitors) are looking in places where they will have to transport what is supposed to be a bright, white product 300km on red dirt (out to the asphalt) by road train - and they still expect to have a white product when it gets there?
"Sometimes there's a big difference between what local knowledge and what computer modelling will tell you."
Since it was formed two years ago, KLL has gained 15 exploration licences and a miscellaneous licence covering an area of about 2400km2.
It has completed environmental and heritage surveys, obtained Native Title agreement for the proposed initial development area, is negotiating a second Native Title agreement and has WA departments of mines and petroleum, environmental regulation and water approvals.
SoP is usually manufactured by reacting Muriate of Potash (MoP) - potassium chloride - with sulphuric acid at 800oC and there are only three locations in North America, Chile and China, where it is produced from brine.
Australia imports 30,000-40,000t of SoP a year.
It is the second most popular form of potassium fertiliser behind the much more readily available and much cheaper (MoP) and has the lowest salinity index of all potassium fertilisers.
Considered a niche product because of its price premium, it is generally used on higher-value leaf crops and fruit and vegetables to enhance growth, flavour and shelf life, and also to help protect from pests and disease because it strengthens stalks and root systems.
It can help with water retention and makes crops more resilient to weather stressors.
SoP is also used on sensitive crops and pastures likely to be burnt by the chloride in MoP and on sulphur-deficient soils.