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He Ahi: New eco-fertiliser plant opening in Taupo
A new fertiliser technology factory powered by geothermal energy will open in February 2024, at the He Ahi Clean Energy Park in Taupo.
Agritech organisation Tnue (pronounced Tee-nui and an acronym for Total Nutrient Use Efficiency) is the inaugural tenant and the brainchild of Bruce Smith, who also founded the fertiliser technology start-up Eko360.
There was a strong business case for control release fertiliser, we had the partners to back the science and raw materials, we knew the markets, we had the manufacturing know-how, all we needed was a factory.
– Bruce Smith, TNUE
“We require a lot of heat to make our control release membrane that is applied to the fertiliser, and this heat needs to come from a sustainable energy source, so geothermal was integral!”
The Tnue plant is the result of collaboration between Tnue, Te Pae o Waimihia Trust, which represents six Ngāti Tūwharetoa hapū, and Contact Energy.
The relationship with both Contact Energy and Te Pae o Waimihia was initiated in 2020 when Eko360 first developed the control release technology, and was looking for a site that provided optimum energy supply with good freight logistics.
The conversations were timely, as Contact Energy and Te Pae o Waimihia, were looking at possibilities to establish a clean energy industrial park.
“We presented them with an option that if they could construct a building with geothermal energy, we would be their inaugural tenant,” Smith says.
Months later, Eko360 raised capital to form a new company, Tnue.
Tnue uses technology to control the release of fertiliser nutrients, which improves the plant's nutrient use efficiency and therefore helps farmers reduce their environmental footprint. In other words, farmers see more growth from each kilogram of nutrient applied and mitigating nutrient loss through volatilisation and leaching.
Tnue purchased the fertiliser side of Eko360’s business and with development capital from New Zealand Green Investment (NZGIF) and WBC Barn (Agritech investors), components of the came together and construction got underway.
Smith says it’s been a long process but ultimately this is a win-win for all involved.
“This business will have a significant impact on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions and nitrate leaching from agriculture while generating revenue for the region and the wider New Zealand economy.”
Thirteen years in the making
Smith began developing control release fertiliser technology for extensive farming systems with Eko360 in 2010. With a career in agriculture including working for BASF and other agricultural fertiliser specialists, proving to be invaluable.
“I knew about control release fertiliser and its use in high-value specialised crops. I believed if you could take this technology and make it available for the broader extensive farming systems, it would mitigate the environmental damage being caused by fertiliser and improve overall farming efficiencies and profitability.”
He says, “to put it in perspective, less than five per cent of land use is high-value intensive growing, using controlled-release fertiliser. If you take this technology and apply it to the other 95 percent plus area, you could make a major impact on reducing nitrogen-derived pollution”.
By refining the existing control release technology and having the fertiliser manufactured offshore, a proof of concept was developed with support from Ballance Agri-Nutrients.
“I sat down with Ballance and asked for their thoughts on the key attributes needed to make this successful. The conclusion was that we had to manufacture the product here in New Zealand using existing infrastructure and supply chains. We had to tailor the product to meet the farmers' needs and ensure that the price was affordable, while providing operational benefits with added value from mitigating the effects of fertiliser use on the environment,” Smith says.
Smith also highlights Callaghan Innovations as an integral piece to the puzzle.
Through this whole journey, they have provided support with research funding from proof of concept, to product development and validation.
– Bruce Smith, TNUE
Smith says it is the continual learning and developing the expertise through the networking occasions provided by Callaghan. Callaghan-led technology trips and seminars such as EvokeAg in Australia, the Ireland market immersion in 2022, and Farm2050 to name a few of the door opening opportunities.
“I wouldn’t be here without Callaghan, there’s no if or grey about it. There was no other way to do what we’ve done, and our success is a great testimony to the work Callaghan Innovation does.”
Tnue’s controlled release fertiliser will be in market early 2024 and available to purchase through Ballance Agri-Nutrients.