Whereas the steel industry and wider ferrous metals sector is big business and of rapid growth, the non-ferrous metals industry is typically business of a smaller and, perhaps, more select scale.
All metals are generally providing a growth driver for gases demand across the world as higher prices and demand have spawned from high construction activity and other developments in emerging nations, as well as traditional markets.
The difference between ferrous and non-ferrous is the absence of iron, with the word ferrous derived from the Latin term ‘Ferrum’ which means ‘containing iron’. This isn’t where the difference draw to a close however, with individual plants in the non-ferrous metals industry considerably smaller than those of the ferrous sector.
Customers in this area typically require oxygen supplies of 5-100 tpd, with prospects in the industry looking increasingly positive. Dr Joachim von Scheele, Marketing Manager for the Metals and Glass Industries division at Linde, explained, “There are growing demands. The high prices are changing the situation. What wasn’t classified as ore 2 years ago is suddenly ore, because the prices are high.”
Non-ferrous metals, in contrast to their iron-rich counterparts, are not magnetic and are typified by the most commonly known metals - aluminium, copper, brass, lead, tin, gilding metal, and zinc. More resistant to corrosion and though not magnetic, non-ferrous metals do attract investment and represent a considerable business prospect.
The market also boasts its own dedicated trading exchange facility, with the London Metal Exchange (LME) the world’s premier non-ferrous metals market. Established in The City of London for over 130 years, the LME offers futures and options contracts for aluminium, copper, nickel, tin, zinc and lead and provides a transparent forum for all trading activity. As a result, the LME helps to ’discover’ what the price of material will be months and years ahead and helps the industry with forward-planning. Such is the liquidity at the exchange that the prices revealed are relied upon by industry across the world and this highly liquid market achieved 2006 volumes of 87 million lots - equivalent to $8.100bn annually and between $35-45bn on an average business day.
This high activity also attracts international interest and investment, with the LME a global market of international membership and with more than 95% of its business coming from overseas.
Perhaps the reason for such interest in this market is the wide variety of applications of non-ferrous metals across an array of industries.
Aluminium for example, is used in the manufacturing of aircrafts and boats, while it finds other uses in window frames, saucepans, packaging and insulation. Similarly, aluminium alloys (duraluminium) find use in the manufacture of aircraft and vehicle parts as a ductile and malleable non-ferrous metal. Another ductile and tough metal is copper, a good electrical conductor of great resistance to corrosion and used in the manufacture of electric wires, cables and water and central heating pipes. Copper can also be found in the manufacture of cylinders and in the electronics industry, for printed circuit boards. Brass, lead and zinc find use in diverse applications too, ranging from x-ray machines and paints, to steel galvanizing and corrugated iron roofing.
Another useful application of non-ferrous metals is in the manufacture of non-magnetic, lightweight fire extinguishers - so fundamental for certain hospital wards and departments, notably around MRI scanners where strong magnetic fields can cause problematic circumstances for magnetic objects.
Luxfer Gas Cylinders, the world’s largest manufacturer of aluminium and composite high pressure gas cylinders, caters for this very demand of extinguishers as it offers high performance aluminium fire extinguisher cylinders. Luxfer provides a unique Proprietary 6061 alloy, a balanced blend of aluminium-magnesium-silicon exclusive to the company.
Adding to gas revenues & services
This highly liquid industry, as the LME describes it, does offer a broad range of utility across industry and contributes significantly to the revenues of the major industrial gas suppliers. While the it has been estimated by the that two-thirds of the turnover of the European metals industry comes from ferrous metals, there are also around 40 non-ferrous metals in production and associated alloys such as brass. Supplying these industries generates a substantial proportion of the major gas suppliers revenues and Praxair alone attributes 17% of its sales revenues to the metals industry - second only to the manufacturing sector.
Oxygen (O2) is a key gas used in non-ferrous metals manufacture, just as it is in steel production, and the growing demand in the industry increases the significance of industrial gases in this market. While Linde’s Joachim von Scheele had indicated such growth, Pravin Mathur of Praxair confirmed this and explained, “Cu (copper) producers are generally in more of a mode to increase production and there’s been activity in putting industrial gases like O2 into Cu production areas. This is more the case in China, where they are installing a lot of new capacity. They are more willing to try injecting more O2 and speed up the process to maximise whatever they can get out of existing capacity.”
Paul Grohmann, Head of the Technology Management department of Messer’s metallurgy division, affirmed this and noted the company’s experience of rising requirements, “We have seen a big increase in demand from the Al (aluminium) industry and especially for rotating metal furnaces for Pb (lead).”
The non-ferrous metals industry presents not just increasing gases demand for the industrial gas community, but also a range of additional service requirements from metallurgy gas application consultancy, to heat treatment and combustion services.
Linde’s BOC provides a broad range of services to the industry, including the supply of bulk and on-site oxygen gas for lead and zinc refining, bulk and on-site nitrogen and argon supply for degassing, and cost-effective heat treatment solutions such as expert furnace design and bulk nitrogen for annealing. This isn’t the full extent of service offering from the industrial gas community, as BOC also provides oxy-fuel burners and injector equipment, consumable gaseous chemicals including ammonia, sulphur dioxide and magnesium, and inerting, water treatment, air conditioning and welding & cutting services.
Air Liquide also provides an array of products and services to the industry, supplying oxygen gas for example, for use in an oxidation process in Copper/Nickel converters. By injecting enriched air into the liquid matter, the sulphur combines into SO2 which is evacuated in the off-gases.
Specialist equipment is employed in this application too, with ALSI, the Air Liquide Shrouded concentric Injector (inside O2/annulus N2), designed to replace conventional tuyeres in the converter and help overcome operational problems - including tuyere blockage and refractory erosion at the tuyere line. This provides permitted enrichment levels of up to 60% O2, increased converter productivity, and a reduction in volume of off-gases as well as many other benefits.
The company is also active in the area of aluminium recycling furnaces and aluminium dross recovery furnaces, these processes optimised when using its unique ALBACH burner technology. Smelting and lead battery recycling plants are other areas of exploration for Air Liquide, with customers able to make the most of its extensive expertise in the oxy-combustion process of smelting reduction furnaces and lead bullion refinery kettles.
While the steel industry looks optimistic and affords a hardened gases demand at present then, the non-ferrous metals market also appears to provide an increasingly sturdy or prominent requirement for industrial gases and related services.