Several resilient and ambitious mining companies have helped the Australian potash industry steadily materialise, and it’s now poised to attract considerable demand in coming years.
Australia’s potash industry is wearing a few bruises, but it’s now moving in a positive direction.
Australia’s future potash producers have forged ahead after investor sentiment cooled in the wake of last year’s Salt Lake Potash capitulation.
Salt Lake, which was developing the Lake Way sulphate of potash (SOP) project in Western Australia, went into receivership in October 2021, owing $US127 million ($179 million) to secured creditors.
But it’s a marathon not a sprint when it comes to developing an SOP project, something Australian Potash recognises. In 2014, the company first found its Lake Wells project in WA to be rich with potassium and sulphat, and has been honing the operation ever since.
Australian Potash chief executive officer Matt Shackleton said his company was working to overcome some industry malaise through honesty and good judgement following what he called some “overly ambitious” initial timelines for the sector.
Shackleton says a potash project needs to be approached and developed on its merits.
“The reality of these projects is that, if developed properly, they will last for several generations – these are very long-lived projects,” he told Australian Mining.
“They, however, do take some time to develop … and that’s a difficult thing to tell the market, particularly when the market’s been told that SOP projects only take a year to develop and a year to get going.”
An important ingredient in plant fertiliser, potash enjoys most of its trade in the agriculture industry. Potash fertiliser increases the pH in soil, which allows for more crops to grow, and ever-increasing global populations mean more crops must be harvested for consumption.
Canada, Russia and Belarus are currently the biggest producers of muriate of potash (MOP), while China is the biggest producer of SOP.
SOP is considered superior to MOP as it does not contain chloride, which affects plant yields and can be toxic on food plants. SOP also has a lower salinity level, which improves plants’ ability to absorb water and soil nutrients, therefore improving the crop quality and yield.
Australia’s potash industry has its sights set on SOP and will look to produce this through a more sustainable method than the resource-intensive Mannheim process used largely in China.
Aspiring Australian developers aim to extract SOP from brine in salt lakes, through solar evaporation and/or chemical methods.
Australian Potash’s Lake Wells project is based on a 30-year mine life and has the potential to produce approximately 170,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) of SOP. If the company can continue to hit its funding and development targets, it hopes to sell the first batch of Lake Wells SOP into the Australian farming market in 2024.
BCI Minerals, represented by its Mardie project on the Pilbara coast of WA, is another emerging player in the Australian potash space.
Mardie has the potential to produce 5.35 million tpa of salt and 140,000 tpa of SOP and has received strong financial backing to this point.
BCI finalised $1.2 billion of funding for Mardie in November 2021 by launching a $360 million capital raise, involving handsome contributions from existing shareholders Wroxby and Ryder Capital, as well as new shareholder AustralianSuper.
This also comprised $740 million in debt funding, with government entities the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) and Export Finance Australia (EFA) committing $490 million and $110 million, respectively.
BCI chief executive officer and managing director Alwyn Vorster said given Mardie’s extended development timeline, the company had to be particularly calculated with its funding strategy.
“Our focus during the capital raise process has been from day one that the solution to this project was to find long-term, patient shareholders, family offices, superannuation funds,” he said.
“This is a very challenging story for a typical retail shareholder. Having said that, we can’t ignore the retail shareholders because we need liquidity in the market, but in terms of longevity, it was always the likes of AustralianSuper, Cbus, UniSuper, those type of funds that we were targeting.”
Mardie will produce SOP slightly differently to the inland operations of Australian Potash, Kalium Lakes and Agrimin, due to its coastal location and use of sea water.
In October, Kalium Lakes took the baton as the first-ever Australian mining company to produce SOP by achieving production at its Beyondie project in WA. Shortly after, the company hit a roadblock after experiencing “certain later-stage commissioning issues in the SOP purification plant” at Beyondie.
“The lower-grade potassium salt feed that adversely impacted the plant start-up was a process control issue related to start-up of the solar evaporation ponds and harvest operation,” Kalium Lakes chief executive officer Len Jubber said.
“This is expected to be avoided in the future with improved management of pond brine flows and harvesting.”
Vorster said there were lessons to be learned in Kalium Lakes’ disruptions, which will inform BCI as it continues advancing Mardie.
“From my understanding, Kalium’s problem at the moment is more brine-management related. The lessons learned there are invaluable to BCI – the importance of not overestimating the ramp-up period and ensuring the very careful management of the quality of your brine pre the process plant,” he said.
“In the BCI case, we are not pumping concentrate from an ancient aquifer, we are using sea water. First we extract the salt and then the wastewater from the salt goes into the SOP circuit.
“This is absolute consistent quality of brine going through that process – sea water rarely changes in quality. I hope that we can show having consistent, quality brine flow management will make the production process easier.”
It’s important to remember the work Australian Potash, BCI, Kalium Lakes, Salt Lake and Agrimin have done is foundational. They are Australia’s first potash companies, period.
There’s always going to be trial and error and there’s always going to be lessons to learn, which will be discussed and understood, before processes are then refined. Shackleton hopes the market can understand this process.
“The really important thing that all of the different stakeholder groups involved in mining shouldn’t miss … is the fact that what we’re trying to do here with this SOP industry is brand new; it’s never been done,” he said.
“It’s not as sexy as lithium because it doesn’t have the Elon Musks of the world pushing it, we don’t have electric cars that look great. But Australian agriculture, food security and our proximity to the emerging middle-class sector in Asia, all of those things bode well for this brand-new industry.
“It’s got strong environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials and we’re going to be producing an organically certified product.
“If two or three or maybe four of these projects get off the ground, we will become the pre-eminent SOP centre on the globe and Australia’s done this in six years. Another couple of years and we’ll be there.
“That shouldn’t be forgotten. Because it’s not a really sexy commodity, it kind of gets pushed to the side but SOP will be very important in five years’ time.
“This will be a very important industry, in my opinion.”
This article also appears in the March edition of Australian Mining.