Phosphorus has brought Phinite founder Jordan Phasey from Australia to Washington D.C. to North Carolina. And now, his company’s uber-efficient and affordable phosphorus fertilizer manufacturing process has brought him to an unlikely market.
Based in Durham, Phinite is at its core an IoT- and robotics-enabled manufacturing company, but works largely in what Phasey considers “one of the harshest environments around”: Eastern NC. farms. Phinite takes hog waste out of lagoons that use anaerobic respiration to treat waste over years and puts that waste into its heavily automated drying facilities, which transform the waste in just over six weeks into a phosphorus-based fertilizer that can be used by farmers.
Phasey began working on sustainable solutions to fertilizer in 2015 while working as a water treatment engineer in Australia’s Northern Territory—a dry land known more for its Aboriginal population and Ayers Rock (a massive sandstone monolith) than the kind of farming enterprise from which phosphorus could be mined.
After winning international honors in an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contest for nutrient recycling in 2016, however, he connected with the perfect partners for his two waste-product-to-fertilizer technologies: Smithfield Foods and North Carolina farmers.
“I came in and Smithfield explained to me the challenges that hog farms in North Carolina were facing from an environmental-management perspective,” Phasey said. “Farmers really lacked access to a low-cost, low-energy drying solution that would enable them to make the manure that’s produced on North Carolina hog farms into a transportable product.”
Don Butler is a recently retired hog farmer of 30 years and five generations of Eastern North Carolina predecessors, a former president of both the NC Pork Association and National Pork Producers Association, and a former Smithfield executive. Butler has been an integral part to Phinite’s journey to Eastern NC.
Butler said Phinite’s process can provide relief to farmers with years of accumulated animal waste in lagoons, helping them avoid the dangerous and expensive environmental effects of an overly full lagoon while harvesting the valuable phosphorus that the treated waste-product contains.
“Most of the farms in North Carolina are between 20 and 30 years old and the byproduct or the sludge from anaerobic digestion has accumulated, and it continues to accumulate in the bottom of these lagoons,” Butler said. “It needs to be extracted at some point, just so there’s adequate volume remaining in the lagoon for treatment. That’s where fine art comes into the picture.”
While providing farmers with a way to turn their animals’ waste product into profit, Phasey said, Phinite is also providing a more sustainable option to growers of produce, who rely mostly on artificially manufactured fertilizers made with natural gas-derived nitrates. Phinite’s technology also addresses inefficiencies associated with traditional phosphate fertilizer, which loses 80% of the key nutrient phosphorus from the mine to the plate and leads to nutrient pollution.
“Fertilizer companies tend not to be so worried about that, because that increases demand for the products,” Phasey said. “But that is where nutrient pollution comes from—the fact that this material is used very unsustainably, and there is no substitute for phosphate. And because so much of the world’s population relies upon this fertilizer, it’s a really important factor in global food security.”
While Phinite offers an inexpensive, global solution for the future, agriculture-rich NC offers the perfect circular market for the company, with a surplus of animal waste and eager produce-growing farmers. The state even has an abundance of empty train cars that could one day transport fertilizer products across the country.
The company’s drying solution is tailored for the NC weather with a rain-protecting cover—a change Butler suggested to Phasey’s original design—and is more affordable to animal farmers than currently available treatment solutions, with a $75,000 investment to build the on-site facility that pays for itself in just 12 to 18 months.
Phinite recently finished installing its first full-scale drying facility in Eastern NC, and loaded in its first round of waste the day before this article’s publication with hopes to see a finished product in January. On the financial side, too, the company is making big strides, as it looks to finish up a $2 million seed round from mostly Eastern NC-based strategic investors and angels. For both investors and farmers like Butler, Phinite’s potential is infinite.
“The whole idea is that it gets rid of what some people perceive as a problem and turns it into an asset,” Butler said. “We turn a liability into an asset and do that in a way that is economical and actually profitable to the farmer.”