FIRST trade samples of a granular Sulphate of Potash (SoP) fertiliser are expected to be produced in Perth from Eastern Goldfields salt lake brine before the end of the year.
Australian Potash Ltd – APC on Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) listings – plans to produce 250 kilograms of premium SoP trade samples as part of an initial two-tonne production run in the fourth quarter this year.
They will be the first SoP samples produced locally using solar evaporation to concentrate hypersaline brine pumped from beneath Lake Wells, about 200 kilometres north-east of Laverton.
Previous APC test samples have been produced in a Canadian laboratory by boiling Lake Wells brine.
The first trade samples will be delivered to Chinese agriculture and fertiliser companies, Hubei Agricultural Means of Production Group Co Ltd and Sino-Agri Holdings Co Ltd.
Based on the anticipated quality of the samples, APC hopes to begin negotiations on turning a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with each company into firm contracts for a total of up to 200,000 tonnes of Lake Wells SoP a year.
APC informed the ASX last week the first 110 tonnes of concentrated brine had successfully been transferred from its “pre-concentration” pond built on the dry lake surface to the first “harvest” pond built off the lake.
The pilot evaporation pond network at Lake Wells comprises a large pre-concentration pond and three smaller harvest ponds.
Brine was pumped from one of five production bores already installed on the lake into the pre-concentration pond where much of the liquid was evaporated off, APC said.
The concentrated brine will now travel through the harvest ponds where sodium, magnesium and potassium salts will crystallise.
Initially the harvest salts will be processed to separate out the sodium and magnesium in Perth at a facility purpose-built in conjunction with the Australian arm of French global testing, inspection and certification services organisation Bureau Veritas.
APC told the ASX this initial evaporation cycle was expected to produce 22 tonnes of harvest potassium salts which will be refined into two tonnes of SoP fertiliser.
Its processing consultant, Montreal, Canada, based project development and management company Novopro, will manage the production of SoP over the final stages of the process, APC said.
That company’s lead process engineer who has done all of APC’s test work and modelling, is expected to spend a month in WA later this year to oversee the first production run.
Apart from the Lake Wells project, Novopro is involved in engineering and developing potash projects for separate clients in Saskatchewan, central Canada, a client in New Mexico, United States, and a production plant in the Congo.
APC is on track to start full-scale commercial production of premium granular SoP fertiliser in 2020.
It is proposing to produce 150,000 tonnes a year in the first five years of an estimated 20-year life of the project, then ramp production up to 300,000tpa, mostly for export.
Once full-scale production begins APC intends to truck SoP processed at Lake Wells to a railhead at Malcolm and bulk rail it to Esperance port.
The State government last week agreed to accept reduced royalties and port fees from Mineral Resources Ltd in order to ensure iron ore from mines at Koolyanobbing continues to be exported through Esperance port.
APC may now also be able to do a deal with the State government and Southern Ports Authority to build future through-port capacity.
APC managing director Matt Shackleton said data gained from producing the first harvest salts and processing them locally would help finalise the Lake Wells project’s definitive feasibility study, targeted for completion in the first quarter next year.
“The pilot ponds generate data essential to our understanding of the climatic-evaporation conditions and the quality and amount of potassium salts we are able to produce,” Mr Shackleton said.
“This successful initial transfer of pre-concentrated brine into H1 (first harvest pond) represents a major step in these areas.
“Based on modelled average daily evaporation rates, we anticipate the evaporation process will be finished in the next four to six weeks.
“As evaporation rates are heavily correlated to daily temperatures, this process will speed up as we head into the hot part of the year.
“With the expected 250 kilograms of trade samples of SoP we will produce from the initial production run, we will look to continue our engagement with our MoU partners in China.
“Our aim through quarter four 2018 is to move these MoU positions to formal, off-take discussions,” Mr Shackleton said.
APC, which is one of two local companies leading the race to be first to produce SoP fertiliser from remote WA salt lake brine, recently appointed experienced mining industry executive and director Jim Walker as non-executive chairman.
He serves an identical role with Macmahon Holdings Ltd and is also chairman of Austin Engineering Ltd, Wesley College and the State Training Board.
Earlier this year APC appointed experienced fertiliser industry executive Jay Hussey as chief commercial officer.
Mr Hussey had served as vice-president of China’s largest non-State owned SoP producer, Migao Corporation, for 10 years in Toronto and Beijing.
He also has extensive experience in the North American fertiliser industry, including project financing.