A LOCALLY-produced premium Sulphate of Potash (SoP) fertiliser product will be field tested at five broadacre sites in the Wheatbelt during next year’s grain growing season.
The field trials will compare SoP produced from Potassium-rich brine from beneath the salt crust of Lake Wells, 200 kilometres north-east of Laverton in the Northern Goldfields, with readily available commercial Muriate of Potash (MoP) fertilisers.
At this stage, the field trials are proposed to be overseen by an independent body of agronomists to verify the results.
Australian Potash Ltd, which is identified as APC on Australian Securities (ASX) listings, has been talking with WAFarmers, WA representatives of two major fertiliser distributors in Australia and individual Wheatbelt farmers who have shown an interest in its Lake Wells SoP project.
Some farmers and the fertiliser companies can expect to see the trade samples of the first locally produced SoP fertiliser before Christmas, APC managing director and chief executive officer Matt Shackleton confirmed on Monday.
Mr Shackleton and APC’s chief commercial officer Jay Hussey – who is highly experienced in the North American and Chinese fertiliser industries and particularly in marketing SoP – would also take trade samples to China to show potential off-take export partners.
As previously reported in Farm Weekly, APC is one of five Perth-based companies at varying stages of attempting to produce SoP fertiliser from brine beneath remote WA salt lakes.
While its Lake Wells project remains primarily export focussed, APC is the first of the five to commit part of its proposed annual production to satisfying domestic demand for a local SoP product to replace imported supplies.
“Australian Potash is committed to supplying SoP to Australian farmers and is actively engaged with large fertiliser distributors in Western Australia,” Mr Shackleton said.
“We are also engaged with Australian end-users.
“SoP is particularly well suited to Western Australia’s nutrient depleted, sandy soils.
“Annual consumption of all potash types in Australia is approximately 500,000-600,000 tonnes and this includes 50,000-60,000 tonnes of SoP.
“With effective incentive pricing, the volume of SoP consumed in Australia will increase materially.”
Not only was there ample scope for Lake Wells SoP to replace imported SoP, he said, there was also significant potential for local SoP fertiliser to replace some of the MoP fertiliser currently used.
While granular MoP is currently considered the most economic form of applying soluble Potassium in broadacre cropping, SoP has the lowest salt index of any Potassium fertiliser, a factor which may become increasingly important in farming salt-damaged areas of the Wheatbelt if it can be made available at a competitive price.
Adequate Potassium from either MoP or SoP strengthens plant cell walls, improving resistance to disease and pest attack, as well as limits water loss, providing some drought resistance.
But a bulk price of more than $900 a tonne for imported SoP has seen its use generally restricted up until now to higher-value fruit and vegetable crops where it also improves colour and taste.
Last week APC notified the ASX of a successful transfer of concentrated brine from a second solar evaporation harvest pond into a third and final harvest pond at Lake Wells.
The pilot evaporation pond network – a large pre-concentration pond and three smaller harvest ponds supplied by five of a likely total of 35 production bores on the lake – aims to replicate the full-scale commercial evaporation process to produce Potassium-rich harvest salts.
It is from these harvest salts the first Lake Wells SoP samples will be produced next month.
The transfer of brine from the first to the second harvest pond at the end of last month produced 11 tonnes of salts, APC said.
The most recent transfer between the second and final harvest ponds produced a further 13-14 tonnes of crystallised salts, it said.
A similar additional tonnage of salts is expected to be harvested when the final pond is drained.
“With this transfer of brine into the final harvest pond, the pilot evaporation pond program is rapidly concluding,” Mr Shackleton said.
“Once the evaporation step is complete, which we anticipate in the next 14-21 days, a blend of about two tonnes of the Potassium-rich salts from all the harvest ponds will be processed into SoP at the company’s purpose-built pilot processing plant.”
As previously reported, APC has worked with the Australian arm of French global testing, inspection and certification services organisation Bureau Veritas, to establish a pilot SoP processing plant at a Bureau Veritas laboratory in Canning Vale.
Its Canadian processing consultant Novopro is sending its lead process engineer out to Australia to manage the initial pilot production run which is expected to produce 250 kilograms of SoP trade samples.
Mr Shackleton and Mr Hussey will take some of these trade samples to Sino-Agri, the largest domestic fertiliser supplier in China, and Hubei-Agri, which controls much of the agricultural production in Hubei Province.
APC has a non-binding memorandum of understanding (MoU) with both companies to supply a combined total of 200,000 tonnes per annum weighted between its proposed first stage production of 150,000tpa and full production of 300,000tpa.
On the strength of the trade samples it hopes to negotiate the MoUs into firm supply contracts.
The plan is to establish a processing plant at Lake Wells and cart bulk SoP by roadtrain about 300 kilometres to Leonora or Malcolm rail sidings then freight rail it to Esperance port for export.
Containerised SoP could be freight railed to Kwinana for export.
APC already has a rates offset agreement with Laverton Shire on its mining leases which cover more than 30,000 hectares of the Lake Wells surface, sufficient for proposed stage-one production.
Under the agreement APC spends the equivalent of annual council rates on maintaining and upgrading 70 kilometres of unsealed public access road into Lake Wells.
APC’s Lake Wells project and that of neighbouring prospective SoP producer Salt Lake Potash Ltd (SO4 on ASX listings) received a boost recently when the Shire was granted funding to seal 100 kilometres of the Great Central Road which would take the asphalt beyond the Lake Wells turnoff.
APC and SO4 are also studying potential cost-saving start-up benefits from sharing some work camp and processing infrastructure at Lake Wells.
A definitive feasibility study on APC’s SoP project is expected to be completed in the first half next year with the first quarter 2020 is targeted for the first commercial local production of SoP.
WAFarmers president Tony York said a locally produced SoP fertiliser would be “a very good thing” for WA agriculture.
“We’ve had talks with Australian Potash and said what they are doing is very encouraging, but we stressed the critical factor for broadacre usage will of course be price,” Mr York said.
“Historically in WA, per unit of Potassium, Muriate of Potash has been the more economical to use because of the higher value of SoP.”