The Fluorochemical Expansion Initiative (FEI), driven by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Department of Trade and Industry (the dti), is aimed at developing South Africa’s fluorochemical industry through increased local beneficiation of the country’s fluorspar reserves. The FEI is aligned to broader national programmes, including the National Industry Policy Framework, the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Strategy and the Beneficiation Strategy for Minerals in South Africa.
South Africa has the world’s largest reserves of fluorspar (followed by Mexico and China), estimated at 41 million tons. Currently, the country supplies about 10% of the fluoride requirements for the US$ 16 billion/a global fluorochemicals industry but earns less than 0.5% of this revenue owing to the low levels of local beneficiation. The FEI attempts to address this through a dual strategy of intensive and focused technology development and commercialisation that aims to establish new fluorochemical manufacturing facilities in South Africa targeting high value, specialty and niche products. The establishment of a world scale fluorochemical hub for commodity type products for both the local and export markets is a project being driven by the dti in partnership with the Industrial Development Corporation, Pelchem and multinational and local fluorochemical companies. The ultimate goal is to implement as many elements of the fluorochemical value chain (shown below) in South Africa.
Fluorochemical Expansion Initiative Research and Development Programme
The key role players in the FEI Research and Development (R&D) Programme are the DST, the dti and Pelchem SOC Ltd. The main technology partners in the initiative are the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa), the University of Pretoria (UP) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). UP and UKZN host the DST-National Research Foundation South African Research Chairs Initiative in Fluoro-materials Science and Process Integration (Prof. Philip Crouse), and Fluorine Process Engineering and Separation Technology (Prof. Deresh Ramjugernath) (http://research.ukzn.ac.za/SARChI-Chairs-ukzn/FluorineProcess.aspx). The programme is managed by Pelchem, a state-owned company with over 30 years of manufacturing experience and currently supplying fluorochemicals globally.
The focus of the FEI R&D Programme’s research activities is on fundamental research in developing novel technologies and new products and on applied research to improve existing technologies and develop new applications for existing products. The main focus of Phase I of the R&D Programme was on widening the FEI technology base by developing skills and R&D infrastructure at two higher education institutions, namely, UKZN and the UP. In Phase II, in addition to continued fundamental research and skills development, the focus of the R&D Programme included improving existing technologies and converting FEI R&D outputs into commercial opportunities. The focus of Phase III, under consideration, will be on expediting commercial fluorochemical opportunities.
The strategy developed contains specific commercial goals with hold points, milestones and actions that are realistically achievable. Whilst Pelchem leads the product development and commercialisation of FEI, the program is open for collaboration to all companies that desire to commercialise fluorochemical manufacturing in South Africa.
The FEI R&D Programme is extremely successful from a knowledge generation perspective. FEI outputs for the period 2008/9 to 2013/14 financial years include more than 100 published peer reviewed articles, 135 papers presented at conferences as well as 10 patent applications and innovation disclosures. Developing young talent is an imperative and the program has developed dedicated and passionate world class young researchers in the field of fluorochemicals with many of those graduating with top honours in their doctorate, masters and bachelor studies.
Exciting developments of FEI includes a patent for an improved commercial technology to produce phosphorus pentafluoride (PF5), a clean and efficient route to produce hexafluoropropylene oxide (HFPO) and the launch of the multipurpose fluorination pilot plant (MFPP).
Multipurpose Fluorination Pilot Plant
Necsa’s multipurpose fluorination pilot plant, funded by the DST, is being used to upscale products developed at laboratory scale. The DST provided grant funding to Pelchem SOC Ltd to establish the multipurpose fluorination pilot plant (MFPP) at Necsa in 2010. An MFPP is considered an essential tool to enable the smooth transition between R&D and commercial operations, and will serve a multitude of purposes, all of which will greatly enhance the FEI.
The MFPP was constructed in four phases. Phase 1 involved building a direct fluorination facility designed to produce a range of perfluorinated compounds, including specific fluoromonomers used in the production of modern fluoropolymers. In Phase 2, fluoropolymer production facilities targeting a range of fluoropolymers and co-polymers were established. Phase 3 established facilities for the production of various inorganic fluoride compounds, especially the metal fluorides. Phase 4 involved developing the facilities to enable the production of organic fluorides targeting specifically reagents used to produce active pharmaceutical ingredients.
The MFPP direct fluorination system (Above) is capable of producing a wide range of specialised organic fluoride products. The patented technology was developed by Necsa (Pelchem).
Construction and commissioning of the first two phases of the pilot plant were completed in 2012. The then Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Mr Derek Hanekom, launched Phases 1 and 2 of the MFPP on 17 July 2012.
Prof. Philip Crouse, SARChI Chair in Fluoro-materials Science and Process Integration at the University of Pretoria (Left), and Mr Derek Hanekom (Deputy Minister of Science and Technology at the time, and current Minister of Tourism) at the launch of Phases 1 and 2 of the MFPP at Necsa on 17 July 2012
The last three phases were completed in September 2013 and the pilot plant was launched by Derek Hanekom, then Minister of Science and Technology, on 5 December 2013. To date, three 3 high value specialty products have been developed on a semi-commercial scale at the MFPP facility with a few more in the pipeline for the next 2 years.
From left to right: Mr Imraan Patel (Deputy Director General: Socio-economic Innovation Partnerships at the DST), Dr Mochubela Jacob Seekoe (Chairperson: Necsa Board of Directors), Dr Petro Terblanche (Managing Director: Pelchem and Derek Hanekom (Minister of Science and Technology at the time) at the launch of Phases 3 and 4 of the MFPP at Necsa.