Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom has hailed the opening of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's (CSIR's) titanium pilot plant as "quite a great moment". He officially inaugurated the plant on Friday, at the CSIR campus, in Pretoria.
"What we are doing today is moving from a resources-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, creating high-quality jobs," he highlighted in extemporised remarks, in place of his official keynote address, which he did not deliver, explaining that it simply repeated what previous speakers at the opening function had already said. "We are facing massive economic challenges. Times are tough. We need these giant leaps."
"This is a pilot plant, but it is something new, something patented," he enthused, noting that the project promises to position South Africa as a competitive player in the global titanium sector. He added that the next step would be a semicommercial titanium powder plant.
It is expected that, in two or three years, the construction of a semicommercial plant (not on the CSIR site) will follow. This will have a capacity of 500 t/y. This step will need an industrial partner. If all goes well, this would be followed by the setting up of a full commercial plant, some eight to ten years from now, with a production capacity of 20 000 t/y.
"We're aiming at 2017 for the next [semicommercial] level -- about 500 t/y [production capacity], moving on to a 20 000 t/y [fully commercial] plant," he reported. "That is on a different scale. But we think it's achievable."
Successfully creating an economically competitive titanium powder production industry in South Africa would be worth between $3-billion and $5-billion to the economy. But it would also open the way to the establishment of an industry using titanium powder in additive manufacturing and three-dimensional printing, to manufacture high quality, high-technology products for the aerospace and other high-tech industries. He pointed out that his department was already supporting local research and development in these fields, such as the Aeroswift project to make aerospace parts by additive manufacturing. This project involved local and international aerospace companies.
"We are really making progress in making these customised, especially aerospace, parts," affirmed Hanekom. "We've come a long way. We've got a long way to go. The possibilities are immense. We are shifting our economy to a more cost-competitive knowledge economy. We have the people, we have the knowledge."
CSIR CEO Dr Sibusiso Sibisi reaffirmed his organisation's support for the beneficiation of the country's minerals. "We at the CSIR are unequivocally committed to the beneficiation of our natural resources – getting involved in making products, having an industry founded upon our mineral resources," he said on Friday, speaking at the opening of the CSIR's titanium pilot plant.
Referring to the new pilot plant, he remarked that it showed that the CSIR, the entire national system of innovation and industry were cooperating to create a new industry. "This event today ... marks a fundamental milestone, not just for the CSIR, but also the country."
CSIR Materials Science and Manufacturing unit research group leader Dr Dawie van Vuuren, in his address at the function, noted that South Africa had the second-largest titanium reserves in the world. However, apart from a small (by global standards) production of pigment, the extent of beneficiation currently undertaken in the country was the production of titanium dioxide. While this is more valuable than raw ilmenite (which is worth about $0.29/kg), at a value of some $0.80/kg it was much less valuable than meal titanium in sponge form (the price of which is around $50/kg), let alone in ingot form (some $80/kg).
The aim of the pilot plant is to test and evaluate technologies developed by the CSIR that, it is hoped, will produce titanium powder significantly more cheaply than existing processes, and in a continuous manner and not, as now, in a batch process. "You can go from titanium powder to titanium products. But titanium powder is rather expensive to produce," explained Van Vuuren. "All in all, we believe we will have a lower-cost process."