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Industrial gases in the metals and mining sector – innovation and skills key to future growth

In its 45 years of serving South African industry, industrial gas company Air Products South Africa has been inextricably linked to the country’s iron and steel sector. The company’s first air separation unit (ASU) was built at Arcelor Mittal’s (then Iscor) integrated steel works at Vanderbijlpark. Air Products is an over-the-fence supplier to two of Arcelor Mittal’s sites, Vanderbijlpark and Newcastle, as well as to other major South African steel plants.

Staying active in the mining sector

From ore extraction and beneficiation to metals processing and recycling, Air Products is active in all areas of the primary metals and minerals (PMM) industry, directly and indirectly. Supplying product via cylinder, bulk liquid and pipeline, Air Products serves a myriad of customers in the metals industry.

“This is true globally, as typically the PMM sector represents the largest user of industrial gases,” notes Sachin Kulkarni, National Sales Manager Bulk at Air Products South Africa.  “With a slow recovery post-2008 in the construction and manufacturing industries – the main drivers of the metals industry – players in the market can no longer necessarily rely on their existing customer base for growth, but should look to other ways of servicing new and existing customers,”.

“Metal industry analysts, such as World Steel Dynamics (WSD), are predicting a protracted recovery and this will be almost entirely dependent on investor confidence. It will be very challenging for countries like South Africa to compete against India and China in the high turnover markets like rebar, metal sheeting, white goods, earth moving equipment and other high volume day-to-day metal products.”

Rethinking mining sector strategies

Due to the massive disparity in output – with China producing around 500 million tonnes of steel per annum in comparison with South Africa’s 9 million tonnes – players in the market are re-thinking their strategies. Trends in the USA and Europe are indicating a move towards more specialised, sophisticated and hi-tech industries such as the automotive, armaments and aerospace industries, and a shift away from basic materials processing.

“There is new focus on improving engineering methods, and using research and development (R & D) to find more innovative solutions to help maximise customers’ processes, such as reducing the weight of components for added efficiency and energy-savings in the automotive industry, or engineering new ways to produce a better grade of steel,” says Kulkarni.

For Air Products South Africa, cost reduction in the field of energy consumption has long been top of the agenda, and part of the company’s ongoing commitment to its customers. Thanks to its ongoing research in the field of energy consumption, notably in combustion processes, Air Products has achieved significant savings for its customers in the PMM industry.

“In most production operations the cost of production comes down to rand per ton or per unit. In the PMM industry a large portion of this cost is associated with melting using chemical or electrical energy,” Kulkarni explains. “By chemical energy we mean combustion operations using fuels like LPG, natural gas, diesel and pulverised coal. Oxygen fuel (oxy-fuel) burners improve both combustion and electrical melting using the temperature differential between the oxygen flame and the metal being melted, the effective distribution of heat in the furnace and reduced flue gas volumes.”

Air Products has recently been able to produce a significant reduction in melting costs per ton in global aluminium furnace installations. Using the same principles, the company has also devised ways in which electrical energy can be complemented or enhanced with oxy-fuel burner systems.

“When electricity costs were below global averages the combustion option was less attractive,” says Kulkarni. “Things have changed; now furnace operators are looking for flexible processes to accommodate orders, avoid maximum demand penalties and reduce energy consumption per unit or ton produced. Air Product’s oxy-fuel burner systems in electrical steel furnaces have resulted in improved melting efficiencies of up to 80 kWh/ton and up to a 20% production increase.”

Evaluating opportunities

The company’s philosophy when approaching combustion prospects is to evaluate each opportunity and propose a suitable offering to the customer, according to Kulkarni.  He adds that Air Products’ long history of R & D globally, coupled with South Africa’s “strong innovative spirit” and “can-do attitude” put the company in a strong position to embrace this trend.

“Addressing the technical skills shortage and investing more in innovation will be critical factors in ensuring continued growth for gas companies within the mining and PMM sector. While industrial gases will continue to be a critical component in smelting processes within the metals industry, it is incumbent on Air Products to be flexible to the changing needs of their customers, as well as all-important safety, health and environmental legislation and compliance.”

While oxygen is used extensively in smelting processes for carbon removal and combustion, Air Products supplies a number of other gases to the metals sector.  These include nitrogen, used as a shielding gas and in flushing/purging; argon, used mostly in argon oxygen decarburisation; hydrogen, which is used for controlled atmosphere heat treatment and in manufacture; and carbon dioxide, which is mostly used in the foundry industry for mould sand hardening, and in fabrication for welding. In mining, which demands smaller volumes of supply, gases such as carbon dioxide, oxygen and acetylene find application in maintenance work, including cutting and welding applications.

“There are many other non-core applications of industrial gases in the PMM industry, including waste water treatment, industrial emissions, scrap processing, special gas mixtures for analytical procedures, welding and cutting gases for production and basic plant maintenance,” notes Kulkarni.

“As we cannot solely rely on new, high-end users of industrial gases entering the market, it is important to seek new applications for non-traditional gas users, as well as the lower-tonnage segment of the market.“

There are other potential cost reduction applications, such as improved metal to waste yield and better heat distribution in furnaces,” he says, adding that, as a global company, knowledge and problem-solving will go a long way to developing solutions which will enhance industrial efficiencies.

Air Products South Africa, with its strong in-house technical expertise, is well-placed to embrace new opportunities arising within these sectors, according to Kulkarni.

“It is our mission to help our existing customers stay in business, be it through energy reduction applications, or introducing more flexible and customer-specific supply and distribution options. These are challenges facing the gas industry, but Air Products’ culture of innovation – coupled with a long history in the mining and metals industries – means that we are poised to rise to these challenges and the fresh opportunities they bring with them,” he concludes.

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