African Fusion attends the launch of Air Products’ new R90-million Dissolved Acetylene plant in Midvaal and takes the tour with plant manager, Anton Grobbelaar.

Continuously improving facilities, safety, processes and service delivery are key contributors to Air Products South Africa’s success over the years. This plays a vital role in establishing the company as one of the leading players in the manufacturing of industrial gas. The strategic decision taken to invest in excess of R90-million to merge two of the existing dissolved acetylene (DA) plants to a centrally located world-class facility in Midvaal is further evidence of this ongoing drive.

The main reason for the move to the new facility in Midvaal was to create a single production facility with improved technology, ultimately establishing a secure supply and improved customer service with increased capacity.

Air Products new DA plant in Midvaal

The new state-of-the-art facility is designed according to the latest and highest standards of global dissolved acetylene trends. The facility was developed by an experienced Air Products team who has been involved with the design, management and operations of the highest quality, within improved timelines and in a manner that is not harmful to the environment.

Dissolved acetylene, which is largely used for oxy-acetylene welding and metal cutting processes, is a colourless, flammable gas with a distinctive garlic-like odour. At Air Products’ new facility, it is manufactured using the chemical reaction between calcium carbide and water:

CaC2 (calcium carbide) + 2H2O (water) → C2H2 (acetylene) + Ca(OH)2 (calcium hydroxide or hydrated lime)

While superficially simple to manufacture, the acetylene gas is highly flammable in the presence of oxygen, and the chemical reaction gives off significant quantities of heat, which has to be removed to prevent the gas from igniting.

“Due to the general nature of Air Products’ gas manufacturing and distribution business, safety forms a crucial part of day-to-day operations at our facilities. This is in line with our company’s global ethos that nothing is more important than safety,” says DA plant manager, Anton Grobbelaar.

According to Air Products MD, Rob Richardson, the launch of the dissolved acetylene facility is the result of the implementation of what Air Products stands for: providing an outstanding service to customers through the use of improved technology, efficient production and compliance to safety regulations.

Richardson further comments on the financial investment: “At Air Products we firmly believe in investing in new technology and processes in order to remain competitive. We had an investment pipeline over the last few years to which we allocated R2-billion, the two most recent projects being the launch of the Vanderbijlpark Facility’s ‘G-Plant’ and the air separation unit (ASU) that was launched in the Eastern Cape in 2014.

“This dissolved acetylene facility is an additional investment that testifies to the fact that we continuously strive to ensure that services and product delivery to customers are placed at the forefront when we plan financial investments of this nature,” he says.

Besides reaching the operational objectives of improved service, it is also important for Air Products to be regarded as a good corporate citizen. To this end, various elements were incorporated into the design to create a sustainable facility. An example is the facility’s ability to harvest and conserve water.

The company has also entered into an Enterprise Development initiative with a company who will be responsible for a solar energy project at the facility in the near future.

Air Products’ continuous aim is to ensure that it plays an active role in the communities in which it operates and improves the lives of people in these areas. As such, the corporate social investment (CSI) programme invested in a 224 m2 aquaponics system at the Randvaal Primary School where learners are taught how to grow vegetables in a sustainable way. The system also provides vegetables that are used for the school’s feeding scheme.

A tour of the new DA plant

At the starting point of our tour, Grobbelaar shows us a handful of grey-black pellets, which he then drops into a jar of water. The surface of the water begins to fizz. “This is, fundamentally, how acetylene gas is made at the new plant: calcium carbide (CaC2) pellets are placed into water and acetylene gas is released from the reaction,” he says.

Pointing to a row of water treatment ponds outside the main plant building, he says that product of the reaction is hydrated lime, which is calcium dissolved in water. “Water and environ- mental management are key issues for Air Products, so this treatment plant is designed to both recover the lime, which has many other industrial uses, but also and more importantly, to purify the water for reuse in the acetylene manufacturing process,” he tells us.

Moving us around the side of the main plant building, he shows us the Acetylene Generator, where CaC2 pellets and water are in a continuous reaction, releasing a steady stream of acetylene gas for further downstream processing.

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Peter Middleton
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