Agripower plans a $35 million plant upgrade this year to shift its Charters Towers fertiliser operation into commercial production.
Managing director Peter Prentice said the company hoped to begin construction within two months, with tenders for tasks such as concreting, formwork and steelwork expected to start rolling out from mid-March.
The initial project will install a processing line to take plant capacity to almost 200,000 tonnes per annum.
Mr Prentice said the company could be looking at a total investment of about $130 million over the next four years to further increase production to a million tonnes per annum.
The expansion rides on a wave of overseas interest in Agripower’s product – a fertiliser based on amorphous silica mined near Greenvale, where it has a JORC resource of 1.8 billion tonnes of ore.
“We’ve got the Indian market – which is massive – and there is extensive interest in China, they are very keen to find a good source of silicon,” Mr Prentice said.
“We have a massive resource in the ground and we have a very clean resource.
“We are the only product that is certified and registered for use in organic agriculture in Australia, India the United States and the European Union.”
Agripower operates a $16 million pilot facility in Charters Towers that has been producing a granule form of silicon fertiliser for the agricultural market since early last year. Development of the more commercially appealing granules followed initial forays from around 2012 with a basic “chip” form of the product.
Mr Prentice said the pilot operation had allowed Agripower to deliver bulk samples to growers and fertiliser distributors in a bid to build a market.
The planned step-up in production follows years of crop trials (more than 300 commercial trials in 11 countries) and other testing in potential markets including India, Morocco, Spain, Turkey, and Brazil
Breakthrough in major export market
In India the silicon fertiliser, Agrisilica, has received breakthrough government approval for Fertiliser Control Order registration.
“In 2012 Agripower entered into an agreement with the government of India and the states to do a testing program on various soil types and crops across India,” Mr Prentice said.
“It was a five-year program, involving 11 key agricultural universities, that has been completed very positively, demonstrating not just increased yield but better quality of product and as a result Agrisilica was recommended to the Indian government to obtain the Fertiliser Control Order.
“The Indian government has gazetted our product and ithe registration is on the Minister’s desk ready for signing. It will be the first non-NPK (nitrogen-phosphate-potassium) fertiliser that has been given an FCO for 40 years.”
Mr Prentice said the total Indian fertiliser market was about 48 million tonnes per annum, compared to 3.6 million tonnes in Australia.
He believed the Agripower product had the potential to capture up to a 5 million-tonne slice of the Indian market.
Engineering design with eye to future growth
The company’s engineering team have spent about nine months investigating plant and equipment to deliver the optimum means of expanding the Charters Towers processing facility, Mr Prentice said.
They had come up with a 200,000-tonne capacity processing line – including milling, granulation, drying and bagging stages – that could be simply duplicated to increase output in future, he said.
“We’ve done a lot of engineering work around that and have literally settled on that only a couple of weeks ago,” Mr Prentice said.
Agripower has also been involved in discussions with Queensland Rail, Ergon Energy and Port of Townsville regarding its requirements as production increases.
The company’s Charters Towers and Greenvale operations employ about two dozen people and Mr Prentice expected this to lift to 65-75 roles in the first stage of expansion.