Air Products South Africa has revealed that it completed the newest of its many plant upgrades earlier this year, continuing four decades of supply services to the South African steel industry.

Increased oxygen demand from steel giant ArcelorMittal has prompted Air Products to expand its facilities and capabilities.

Earlier this year, the newest of many plant upgrades was completed at the company’s Newcastle steel plant, now controlled by ArcelorMittal South Africa Limited.

A project opportunity to expand Air Products’ production facility was motivated by a second extension of the gas supply contact, and represents the largest capital investment made by Air Products South Africa in the past decade.

The customer approved a 10 year agreement, for the supply of 1220 tons per day (tpd) of gaseous oxygen, 450 tpd of gaseous nitrogen, and their argon gas requirements.

At the core of this project was the design and construction of a new, high efficiency air separation unit (ASU) – ensuring it is one of only two plants in South Africa capable of producing high-purity argon directly from cryogenic distillation, and not dependant on expensive hydrogen gas feedstock.

Rob Richardson, Air Products’ General Manager Onsites, explained that the plant is able to supply a diversity of customers, including four nearby chemical producers. He said, “It is very much at the high end in terms of air-separation plants and produces high purity oxygen and ultra-high purity grade nitrogen and argon.”

“The key to its quality output is the very sophisticated analytical equipment to carry out the quality assurance needed. This plant has 12 on-line analysers verifying parameters of both in-process and final product quality, at any given time. It is also equipped with advanced distributed control systems that maintain these quality standards.”

Strengthened supply chain
The new ASU is the fourth to be constructed by Air Products at Newcastle and the three existing ASUs, which have been periodically upgraded during the past 38 years, were extensively refurbished during ArcelorMittal’s R 40m blast furnace project in 2008.

As with most other Air Products ASU operations worldwide, this new plant not only supplies gaseous products that are piped directly to the adjacent ArcelorMittal Newcastle works, but also produces liquefied nitrogen, oxygen and argon that are delivered to other Air Products customers in bulk liquid tankers.

The company has increased its liquid gas storage capacity at Newcastle and upgraded the tanker-loading facilities to strengthen the supply chain to merchant gas business. Bulk gas customers in both Natal and Mpumalanga are already thought to be benefiting from these improvements.

“The upgrade of Air Products Newcastle site and the expansion of its capacity is very much an investment for the future. It’s a vote of confidence in the future of ArcelorMittal, Air Products and South Africa,” concluded Richardson.

Steel legacy
Steelmaking in South Africa started with the establishment, by act of Parliament, of the South African Iron and Steel Industrial Corporation (Iscor) in 1928.

The first steel was tapped from an open-hearth furnace at Pretoria in April 1934, with wartime demand providing the initial growth impetus, followed by rapid industrial growth.

It was in 1969 that the South African Government decided that Iscor's third fully integrated steelworks should be erected at Newcastle, in the northern region of what is now known as Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Air Products South Africa (Pty) Ltd was established to build, own and operate air separation plants that would provide the continuous supply of oxygen, argon and nitrogen from facilities that share the same sites as the ISCOR steelworks in Pretoria, Vanderbijlpark and Newcastle.