It’s just over two-and-a-half years now since Akzo Nobel’s massive solar salt plant in Onslow, Western Australia, started production.
The USD 60 million facility—built to supply the chlor-alkali manufacturing industry in Asia—has registered some significant milestones along the way, with annual production now up to around 1.8 million tons.
But one thing the site didn’t bank on was becoming a tourist attraction.
The unexpected development has seen thefacility become something of a focal point in Onslow, a remote town of around 750 inhabitants which is 85 kilometers from a main highway and two-and-a-half hours by plane from Perth.
During the tourist season, volunteers from the Onslow Tourist Center now offer bus tours of the installation, which covers a total surface area of 90 square kilometers.
“The tours cover the 9000ha of salt fields,” explains managing director Ronald Stuker. “They operate during the peak season from May to October and take approximately two hours and since they began we’ve had more than 500 people tour the site.”
Each tour begins with a brief history of the town of Onslow and once on the salt fields, a guide gives the participants a comprehensive explanation of the development of the salt field and the production process, from pumping sea water to the export of salt from the plant’s private jetty.
Visitors can also see the ponds, crystallizers, washplant, stockpile and ship loading facility from various vantage points around the site.
“People are usually fascinated by the process, how simple salt making is, and perhaps most of all the uses and markets for the salt,” adds Stuker. “They don’t realize that salt is an integral ingredient in various chemicals, which make their everyday products such as glass, plastics, PVC and paints.
“They usually only think of salt as a food flavoring ingredient and hence they are amazed when they hear that the major market for Onslow’s salt is the chemical industry.”
salt manufacture requires favorable conditions (preferably very hot and no rain) and thankfully the last two years have been free of the sort of freak cyclone which forced the redesign and reconstruction of the original Onslow facility—a plant which was severely damaged by Cyclone Vance in 1999 on the very eve of the planned opening.
“There were some small cyclones during 2003, but none that caused us any delay or major drama,” says Stuker. “We’ve had favorable weather with little rainfall.”
The Onslow site is designed to produce 2.5 million tons of salt each year, with the expansion potential to produce six million tons annually, and so far everything has been running according to plan.
A total of 65 people are now employed at the site and the company’s office in Perth (which is 1,000 kilometers to the south), with all the on-site employees living in the town of Onslow in 38 new homes specially built to accommodate them and their families.
“The last 12 months have been a matter of settling into a routine,” continues Stuker. “We are successfully and routinely producing and shipping salt without any major hiccups and we believe our initial start-up phase is now over.
“We are looking ahead to 2004 and we believe we have firmly established ourselves as a reliable salt producer for the Asian markets.”
(Released: December 3, 2003)