Chemistry International
Vol. 21, No.3, May 1999

1999, Vol. 21
No. 3 (May)
.. News from IUPAC
.. Other Societies
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Chemistry International
Vol. 21, No. 3
May 1999

News from Other Societies and Unions


Historical Overview of the South African Chemical Industry: 1896 - 1998

AECI's Predecessors
African Explosives and Industries
African Explosives and Chemical Industries (AECI)
SASOL's Predecessors
SASOL Two and Three
Sentrachem's Predecessors
National Chemical Products (NCP)
Industrial Development Corporation (IDC)/Federal Volksbeleggings (FVB)
Sentrachem Group

African Explosives and Chemical Industries (AECI)
Diversification from explosives followed. Fertilizers, paints, veterinary preparations, and insecticides were all produced to meet a growing demand. To reflect this diversity, the name of the company was changed from African Explosives and Industries to African Explosives and Chemical Industries in 1944. Two years later, as if to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the explosives industry, a calcium cyanide plant was erected, again to meet the growing demand from the gold mines.

The next 35 years were characterized by an almost continuous increase in production and diversification. A second ammonia plant was commissioned at Modderfontein in 1955 and, when urea was first produced in 1960, annual capacity for ammonia was increased to 145,000 tons. In 1955, surplus acetylene from a carbide plant at Ballengeich in Natal was transported to Umbogintwini for the production of polyvinyl chloride, the first commodity plastic to be made in South Africa. The associated chlor-alkali plant also supplied chlorine and caustic soda to the South African Industrial Cellulose Corporation (SAICCOR) at Umkomaas. Methanol, formaldehyde, and urea-formaldehyde resins were produced at Modderfontein, and in 1963, interests in SA Titan Products (now Tioxide SA) and SA Nylon Spinners were acquired.

In 1964, the company opened a fourth manufacturing site, the Midland Factory at Sasolburg. Using feedstocks from SASOL, the new factory produced initially calcium cyanide and then polyethylene (1966). PVC, CFCs, and chlorinated solvents followed. Adherence to the Montreal Protocol resulted in the phasing out of CFCs manufacture in 1995.

The company name was abbreviated to AE & CI in 1972, and, in 1974, a 300,000 ton per annum coal-based ammonia plant was commissioned at Modderfontein. A further name change to AECI followed in 1976, and the company's dependence on coal as a raw material was emphasized with the commissioning of the Coalplex project at Sasolburg in 1978. A joint venture with Sentrachem, Coalplex consisted of five linked plants: carbide, acetylene, chlorine, VCM, and PVC. Coalplex also produced caustic soda and lime hydrate.

During the early 1980s, AECI consolidated its position as the major chemical company in South Africa, expanding and diversifying its product range. Acquisition of Chemical Services in 1980 was significant, reflecting an increased emphasis on speciality chemicals. In 1985, after 82 years, explosives manufacture at Somerset West was phased out. A joint-venture soda ash plant was commissioned in Botswana in 1991, and two years later the formation of AECI Bioproducts and AECI Aroma and Fine Chemicals was announced, with plants at Umbogintwini and Richards Bay.

In 1993, AECI and SASOL agreed to the formation of a new company, later to be called Polifin. This joint venture produces monomers, polymers, chlor-alkali products, cyanide, and peroxides. Restructuring involved closing the costly carbide-acetylene route to VCM and using, instead, ethylene from SASOL. Major restructuring also occurred within the group during the 1990s. Manufacture of nitroglycerine gave way to new-generation explosives in 1994, and the Modderfontein complex celebrated its centenary in 1996.

In 1998, SASOL put in a bid to take over AECI, but the deal was aborted owing to stringent restrictions imposed by the Competitions Board. Further restructuring is currently in progress involving a move out of ammonia and urea production, and the likely sale of interests in Polifin, Dulux (paints), Tioxide SA, and Fedmis (fertilizers). Proceeds from these sales will go to reducing debt and reinvestment in five core clusters: explosives, speciality chemicals, fibers, biotechnology, and agricultural products.

SASOL's Predecessors
Although SASOL started producing oil from coal in 1955, its origins can be traced back to 1895 when coal was first mined on both sides of the Vaal River near Vereeniging. The mining house, Anglovaal, was interested in the large deposits of low-grade coal in this area and further south in the Free State. There was considerable interest in coal chemistry during the 1920s, and, in 1927, a government White Paper was published recommending the development of gasification and carbonization processes.

In the early 1930s, Anglovaal and the British Burmah Company established the South African Torbanite Mining and Refining Company (SATMAR) to mine oil shales near Ermelo and to distill off and refine the oil, mainly for petrol. Anglovaal's interests in oil-from-coal were extended when rights to the German Fischer-Tropsch process were acquired. In 1938, Hendrik van Eck, Anglovaal's consulting chemical engineer, appointed Etienne Rousseau as research engineer at SATMAR to pursue this initiative. Franz Fischer visited South Africa in 1938 to assist in getting the venture off the ground; however, World War II intervened.

During the war, Anglovaal maintained its interest in oil-from-coal and entered into negotiations with the M. W. Kellogg Corporation. There was considerable interest in the United States at that time, with the U.S. government considering an oil-from-coal plant on the west coast. In 1945, Anglovaal applied to the South African government for assistance to establish a plant based on the American Hydrocol process. After protracted negotiations, a license was finally issued in 1949. Owing to devaluation and involvement with gold mining developments, Anglovaal needed assistance to raise the required £20 million. The World Bank expressed polite interest in the project, but no money was forthcoming.

In the meantime, negotiations were proceeding with the Kellogg Corporation for licensing of its patents and assistance in the design and erection of a plant. However, Rousseau believed that a closer look needed to be taken at what the Germans had been doing with the Fischer-Tropsch process since the war. He obtained an offer from the Lurgi Gesellschaft, Oberhausen-Hollen, and Ruhrchemie Aktiengesellschaft, through an Arbeitsgemeinschaft (ARGE), of the designs for and the right to operate plants for the production of synthetic gas from coal and the Fischer-Tropsch process.

The upshot was the establishment, on 26 September 1950, of the government- sponsored South African Coal, Oil, and Gas Corporation Ltd., commonly called SASOL. This acronym arose from Rousseau's initial suggestion that the company be called South African Synthetic Oil Limited. Rousseau, SASOL's first employee, was appointed managing director, a position he held for 18 years. Both Kellogg and ARGE processes were used; the former produced high proportions of medium octane petrol, LPG, and a range of chemicals; the latter produced mainly higher-boiling waxes and oils, including diesel.

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The plant, SASOL One, and its associated town, Sasolburg, were established in the Free State, just south of the Vaal River. All did not run smoothly as Rousseau recalled, "I must tell you honestly that there were times in SASOL's early years, times when we had trouble, big trouble, when I felt that my main charge was to keep up the courage of our men. I certainly could not allow myself a moment's despair". Despite these setbacks, SASOL chemists and engineers managed not only to get the plant working satisfactorily, but also to devote time to improving efficiency and to widening the product range. Feedstocks for the manufacture of synthetic rubber, fertilizers, and secondary chemicals followed. Together with Total SA and the National Iranian Oil Company, a refinery (NATREF) was established in Sasolburg in 1960. Imported petroleum was refined and cracked to produce ethylene for plastics, and pipeline gas was supplied in increasing quantities to industry.

SASOL Two and Three
Before World War II, coal provided more than two-thirds of the world's energy needs. By 1973, oil provided more than half of these needs, consumption was increasing, and the first oil crisis threatened supplies from the Middle East. SASOL's response to these developments was to commission a feasibility study on the establishment of a second oil-from-coal plant. At the end of 1974, plans for the erection of SASOL Two were announced at a cost of R 2458Êmillion. A site about 100 km to the east of Sasolburg, to be called Secunda, was chosen. Construction began in 1976 and was completed in 1980. At that time, South Africa imported much of its oil from Iran, and the overthrow of the Shah precipitated a further oil crisis. The result was SASOL Three, constructed in 1982 adjacent to SASOL Two.

Since its inception, SASOL has always placed a high priority on research and development. The SASOL One plant no longer produces fuels but instead a wide range of chemicals. The Fischer-Tropsch process has undergone continuous improvement, first through the Synthol process and more recently via the SASOL Advanced Synthol process. As a result, at SASOL Two and Three, fuels are being produced with greater efficiency and increasing numbers of petrochemical feedstocks, and speciality chemicals are being extracted from the product stream. SASOL's Slurry Phase Distillate process for the production of high-quality diesel from natural gas has aroused keen interest in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

SASOL functions through six main operating companies and has interests in several specialized chemical and petrochemical companies. Foreign sales amount to nearly 26% of group turnover, and there are major oil and gas exploration activities underway in southern and west Africa. By the mid 1990s, SASOL had become, by far, South Africa's largest chemical company.




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