The Flora Restorer

An innovative new piece of machinery designed and commissioned by Iluka Resources – the Flora Restorer – is facilitating world-class rehabilitation on a globally-renowned area of native vegetation in Western Australia.

Located three hours’ drive north of Perth is Eneabba, where less than 30mm of rain in total falls on average across December, January and February and winds regularly gust in the 30-40km/hr range, making erosion of the sandy soils a constant problem.

Mineral sands company Iluka Resources, utilising Flora Restorer, has accomplished the restoration of 18sq kilometres of Kwongan vegetation to near-untouched levels. 

Iluka Principal Rehabilitation Scientist, Mark Dobrowolski, said that while the company has been on the rehabilitation journey for many years, it was greatly aided since Flora Restorer was pressed into action in 2019, with the machine taking individual rehabilitation techniques that were already being employed and combining them in a “one-stop shop.”

“Flora Restorer is a sort of a one-pass piece of equipment which spreads fertiliser, scarifies the ground preparing the ground surface, and places a diverse variety of seed in on that ground – anything from as big as my thumb to a tiny little dusty seed,” Mr Dobrowolski said.

“Then it rolls a land imprinter over it – creating a dimpled surface – before it sprays an artificial soil crust of bitumen emulsion to hold those seeds in place until it rains.

These processes have been combined to improve germination of the seed Iluka carefully collects, treats to break dormancy and then spreads out on the ground.

“We’re trying to make sure that we get the best value for germination from that seed that we can in our rehab.”

While its work might be carried out away from the limelight, Flora Restorer has already been able to attract wider attention, being named one of three finalists in a hot field for the prestigious Western Australia Government Golden Gecko Award, which recognises environmental excellence in the resources sector, last year and is in the running again this year.

Native Kwongan is prized internationally for its diversity of species and resilience to the elements but it is hard to generate from scratch because of the climatic extremes.

“Since Flora Restorer came into operation we’ve been able to nearly triple the rate of germination of the seed we broadcast in rehabilitation – while using the same amount of seed,” Mr Dobrowolski said.

“At the same time – by combining all the techniques in the one machine – we can rehabilitate two or three times the area back to native vegetation, back to the Kwongan.

“So it’s a double whammy of increased area and increased quality of rehabilitation.”

While the efficiencies of Flora Restorer are certainly a selling point, Mr Dobrowolski’s favourite piece of innovation on the machine is one that tackles the ever-present threat of erosion.

“Eneabba is regularly the hottest place in the state in summer – in the morning the wind blows from the east at 30km/h and then in the afternoon it blows from the south-west,” Mr Dobrowolski said.

“The poor little plant has to survive in that windy, dry environment. It doesn’t want to get sand-blown all its life and sand drifts everywhere, so you need to control that to get those tiny little seedlings to establish.

“My favourite innovation on Flora is a combination of two very old technologies: one is land imprinting, which is a great invention by a soil scientist in the rangelands of the US named Bob Dixon.

“He invented these big rollers that are used in the western United States to dimple the land.”

Mr Dobrowolski said that when combined in sandy-profiled soils with bitumen emulsion crust it stabilises the land and the plants can pop up through it and grow.

“The water pools on that surface and it doesn’t erode and gets in the ground, allowing those plants to establish.”

Kwongan vegetation

Vegetation in Kwongan location

Flora’s capabilities tie in neatly with Iluka’s rehabilitation ambitions to restore the Kwongan landscape to something like how it might have looked before mining started, with the process strongly assisted by the company’s painstaking approach to rehabilitating the “right way”.

Mr Dobrowolski said that mining is short term for Iluka as it moves site-to-site. 

“Our reputation is only as good as our last mine and that’s part of my role at Iluka, to ensure we research and adopt the best practices possible for doing rehabilitation after mining.

“In 20 years’ time, people will hopefully look across this site and just see natural Kwongan and won’t be able to see the difference between the natural vegetation and what we’ve rehabilitated.

“We aim to put back a functioning ecosystem which can self-sustain and perpetuate through life.”

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