World fertiliser saviour
THE destiny of northern Australia, with its seemingly endless supplies of water, is sometimes seen as the food bowl of the world.
However, less well known, and probably with less disagreement, is its potential to be the fertiliser saviour of the world.
The vast Georgina Basin in north-western Queensland and the Northern Territory, which in the distant past was an inland sea, hosts hundreds of thousands of square kilometres o f p h o s p h a t e - r i c h r o c k formed from the sediments of ocean beds laid down tens of millions of years ago.
North-west Queensland already hosts Australia’s only ammonium phosphate fertiliser manufacturing plant at Phosphate Hill 150km south of Mount Isa. It is a $ 1 billion operation employing 350 people, many of them living in Townsville.
There are a host of players looking to duplicate what the former Western Mining Corporation has done – make big money out of phosphate rock – and Townsville, 1000km away, looks set to play a big role.
‘‘ It’s a very significant resource,’’ Townsville geologist and James Cook University emeritus professor Bob Henderson said.
‘‘ As a total resource, got t o r at e ( among largest in the world).
‘‘ The downside of it is, it’s distant from the coast.’’
The Phosphate Hill res o u r c e w a s o n l y ‘ ‘ d i s - covered’’ in 1966.
Indeed exploration for the material in Australia was not permitted before the 1960s t o protect British interests in the trade.
Western Mining, after initial rock exports and plans it’s t he
PROSPECTS: Krucible Metals personnel Bridgette Humphries, Marcus Harris, Tony Alston and Dennis Lovell f o r c o mplementary s ul - phuric acid plant and gas p i p e l i n e we r e s e c u r e d , opened the Phosphate Hill fertiliser plant in 2000.
BHP Billiton, which took over Western Mining, sold off the plant for a song in 2005 – just $ 165 million.
With the price of ammonium phosphate, vital for modern agriculture, now well over $ 600 a tonne and climbing, annual profits from the operation which produces about one million tonnes a year have been in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.
Also, with scientists warning that the world is app r o a c h i n g ‘ ‘ p e a k p h o s - phate’’ and that global reserves could be depleted in as little as 50 years, it is little wonder others are looking to duplicate Phosphate Hill.
Mining entrepreneur Joe A fossil from the phosphate enrichment zones in the
Georgina Basin of north-west Queensland Gutnick is one. His Legend International Holdings has tenements north of Mount I sa and i s planning an $ 800 million project, involving a sulphuric acid plant, phosphoric acid plant, ammonium phosphate plant a n d a l u mi n u m plant.
Financial adviser Nomura has been appointed to assess interest for partners.
Townsville-based explorer Krucibl e Metals Lt d i s investigating a small but
f l u o r i d e high-grade phosphate mine, near Phosphate Hill, exporting rock from Townsville.
On the other side of the border, two other players, Minemakers Ltd and Phosphate Australia Ltd, are looking at becoming world s c a l e p r o d u c e r s i n b e nef i c i a t e d r o c k p hosphate, fertilisers and phosphate chemicals.
Professor Henderson said the Georgina Basin was a strategic resource where the sediment basin was widely spread and was generally quite thin but with an infill of up to 3km in some places.
‘‘ The bottom line is we have a resource that is every bit as good and bigger than what is available at Phosphate Hill,’’ he said.
‘‘ The problem is doing something with it.’’
He said the Phosphate Hill plant was ‘‘ big scale chemical engineering’’.
‘‘ Western Mining in getting that plant together and to make it work was a very innovative thing to do,’’ he said.
‘‘ It’s not a trivial exercise. The processing of it is complicated.’’
Professor Henderson said he had little doubt the resources would be developed and that the benefits for the North would be huge.
However, he believed development would occur in the next decade rather than the next year or so.
‘‘ I think there is going to be quite a long lead-up to this thing,’’ he said.
‘‘ The trick is to produce a high-value product on site like Incitec Pivot at Phosphate Hill.
‘‘ In terms of developing it, we need to be smart.
‘‘ It’s a smart development, not a BHP Billiton type development.’’