Air Liquide has secured an agreement with Sasol Synfuels (Pty) Ltd to install a new liquid argon production plant at the company’s Secunda plant, at an investment of more than R500m.

The recovery plant will form part of a new world-scale 3,500 tons per day (tpd) air separation unit (ASU), which Sasol has sourced from Air Liquide Engineering.

The plant is scheduled for commissioning in late 2010 and Air Liquide’s total investment is believed to be valued at more than R500m.

Air Liquide Marketing Director Jonathan Madden commented, “This will be the sixteenth sir separation unit Air Liquide has supplied to Sasol Synfuels, while the argon recovery unit will be the first of its kind to be installed at the Secunda plant.”

“The global argon market had reached a point where demand suddenly approached supply. This is on the back of growing demand from existing manufacturing segments such as fabrication, and development of new applications to improve customer processes in metallurgical applications.”

Short supply
Due to the inherent difficulty in securing argon production capacities in South Africa, this balance led to the emergence of a short-supply situation in some parts of 2007 and 2008 – prompting Air Liquide to initiate a bulk argon import programme.

The company noted that it had to ‘develop some immediate solutions to lessen the constraints’ on its customers in the local fabrication industry.

“The commissioning of new argon production capacity is constrained by this element’s scarcity in our atmosphere (0.9%) – making dedicated production plants unfeasible. Thus, argon is produced as a by-product in large air separation units designed primarily for production of oxygen and/or nitrogen,” explained Air Liquide CEO, of Air Liquide Southern Africa, Alain Larousse.

The new ASU for Sasol Synfuels provides a timely opportunity for co-production of argon, while Sasol will both operate and maintain the facility.

Larousse added, “Air Liquide will invest in the argon plant, strategic storage, and supply chain needs, the largest single investment of its kind in Africa, and representing an increase on the local market of more than 25%.”

“The product, in its pure form or as part of specialised gas products developed for specific applications, will be marketed through Air Liquide’s existing supply chain in bulk or compressed and filled into cylinders at Air Liquide’s filling stations around the country.”