Exploiting SA’s fluorspar riches

Increasing the number of opportunities for commercialisation has become central to the effort to grow South Africa’s economy. The country’s rich mineral resources have been highlighted as key in exploiting huge commercialisation opportunities, but South Africa continues to lag behind in maximising the value of these natural deposits.

A case in point is the country’s abundance of fluorspar. Otherwise known as fluorite, this industrial mineral is used in many chemical, ceramic and metallurgical processes, of which South Africa possesses the world’s second largest deposits.

The commercial challenge is that in spite of these mineral riches and ranking third after China and Mexico in fluorspar mining, South Africa has less than 0.3% of the global fluorochemicals market.

Two Research Chairs awarded when the SA Research Chair Initiative was started demonstrate the over-arching objectives of increasing research and innovation capabilities while improving the country’s competitiveness.

The Chairs in question relate to the study of increasing the commercialisation of South Africa’s abundance of fluorspar.

For this reason Professor Philip Crouse at the University of Pretoria and Professor Deresh Ramjugernath at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) were each awarded a Research Chair to investigate commercialisation opportunities. This was by virtue of the Fluorochemical Expansion Initiative, sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Corporation of SA and its subsidiary Pelchem.

Crouse’s Chair in Fluoro-Material Science and Process Integration is dedicated to exploring ways to produce fluoropolymers, of which polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is a common derivative. This polymer – known more commonly by the DuPont brand name Teflon – is an example of the potential for such materials.

He explains that while South Africa had developed techniques to produce the fluorine needed in such materials, it has failed to develop the capability to do so at scale.

A substantial research effort is therefore directed at developing the technology and processes to produce PTFE and its co-polymers to a standard and volume that would make South Africa competitive.

In pursuit of this goal, he has established a pilot plant at Pelchem to test the methodologies that he and his post-graduate students are developing. He says the intermediate goal is to produce polyvinylidene fluoride, a specialty plastic material that could be added to Pelchem’s product line.

“Great strides have been made in being able to produce the polyvinylidene fluoride but  we can only claim success if we are able to increase production safely, affordably and to a quality that competes internationally,” says Crouse.

Students are gaining valuable practical experience in both the research and production of the fluoro-materials, as they get to operate the pilot plant to complement skills within Pelchem.

Professor Ramjugernath at UKZN is exploring similar possibilities for value-added fluorspar applications through his Chair in Fluorine Process Engineering and Separations Technology.

The main thrust of his work is the development of new chemical processes that can produce fluorochemicals and as well as new applications for them.

One area of exploration is in the use of fluorine in gas form as a refrigerant. Fluorine emerged as a viable alternative to conventional chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that cause depletion of the ozone layer. He says modern fridges and air conditioning systems rely on fluorinated molecules, which are currently all imported into South Africa.

The impact of his work would therefore be to reduce the country’s reliance on such imports, while beneficiating the enormous reserves of fluorspar and thereby narrowing the trade deficit. He concedes that the refrigerant market is a commodity and that a cost-effective way is still being sought to synthesise the molecules or to find new applications for the chemical.

He says that the research work conducted under his Chair has made good progress since it was instituted. Apart from the work on the refrigeration applications, he has filed a number of fluorochemical patents based on techniques developed over this period.

His aim is to establish a full-scale plant once the results from the pilot plant at Pelchem prove conclusive. Such a plant would be designed to produce high-value, low-volume fluorochemicals for the international market.

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