“Premus technology is the most sophisticated and competitive ferrochrome production process in existence,” says ferrochrome producer Xstrata’s general works manager, Chris Smith, when describing the advantages of this technology.
The R1 670-million Lion ferro-chrome smelter and mine expansion project started production at its Steelpoort processing plant in the third quarter of this year with a designed annual production of 364 000 t in its first phase.
Should they go ahead, phases two and three are expected to boost production to over one- million tons of annual ferrochrome production.
GM Ferrochrome Tony Riley attributes the high yield to the company’s investment in its Premus technology.
“Not only is the process difficult to emulate,” he says, “but it is also designed to reduce electrical energy consumption while providing high recoveries of metallic oxides.” The process involves the milling and pelletising of fine ore, reductants and binder where the pellets are prereduced in rotary kilns, and the metallised pellets are hot-charged to closed furnaces.
Xstrata says that the use of metallised pellets results in high chrome recoveries and the lowest specific energy consumption.
Any furnace off-gas is cleaned by venturi scrubbers and reused throughout the plant.
Smelting technology and equipment manufacturer Pyromet supplied the furnace, electrode columns and gas scrubbing equipment.
Expansion and growth
Xstrata sees the need for sustainable South African expansion when considering the global demand on local producers, and a projected stainless steel growth of greater than 4,5% annually.
The realities for South African producers, says Xstrata, are that 75% of chrome ore requires agglom- eration.
Also, that rising power costs and growing demand call for investment in energy efficiency and power generation capacity.
Included is the cost of reduc- tants, which Xstrata bases on the global volatility in metallurgical reductants (coke) and, what the company calls the ‘ailing logistics infrastructure’, which is a function of strong demand and delayed investment.
According to Xstrata, any new or existing South African ferrochrome infrastructure has to counter these challenges to remain viable in the long term. It has, therefore, invested in various strategies to counter these challenges.
Premus technology can use all the fine ore from Xstrata mines and UG2 developments.
Amid rising power costs, the technology has the lowest specific energy consumption relative to other chrome production technologies, says Xstrata.
Also, the technology has a greatly reduced reliance on metallurgical coke, instead, anthracite can be used as an alternative and is sourced from an Xstrata captive mine.
To solve the ‘ailing logistics’ issue, the Maputo port link has been developed as an alternative to the Richards Bay link.
Further, Smith highlights challenges, specific to this project, which the company faced during expansion.
Project delays incurred include difficult ground conditions, abnor-mally heavy rains and numerous casting defects with the kilns, riding rings and support rollers.
Regardless of these conditions, the project produced alloy, on time, in the third quarter of this year.
Computer simulation Project Lion’s vigilance on safety during construction, and its sub- sequent fatality-free status stem from a companywide culture of continuously seeking innovations around the issue.
Computer simulation and virtual reality technology is being used by Xstrata as part of its training in all alloys operations.
The Interactive Virtual Reality Safety Training software simulates real mining conditions and hazards and enables mine workers to identify potential hazards once they are working underground.
Xstrata Alloys executive director for sustainable development, Deon du Preez, says the new technology not only saves lives, time and money, but vastly improves the retention of the information imparted in training.
“The interactive nature of the program means that visually the training is as close to the real experience as possible, which makes it easier for mine underground staff to recall it when necessary. It does not only identify potential hazards, but also includes indicating the necessary corrective steps. Xstrata is obsessed with safety, and this technology is a further step in the right direction, and the trainees have responded very positively to it,” he says.
The programme also has a new addition called Virtual Accident Reconstruction Simulation technology, which has the potential to revolutionise the way accidents are investigated and prevented in future.
Xstrata has approached Simu-lated Training Solutions (STS) to simulate actual serious incidents over the past year.
These will be used to explain the circumstances surrounding those incidents in clear detail, and result in the formulation of effective preventative measures.
The STS software can also simu-late bad geological conditions under- ground, allowing workers to take appropriate action to prevent fall of ground. This part of the programme is called the Trigger Action Response Plan, and requires employees to work though the simulation, identifying conditions and implementing appropriate control measures.
Failure to do so results in the programme demonstrating exactly what will happen.
Because this new safety-training programme is computer-based, it has the added benefit of teaching computer skills to employees who were otherwise unable to use a computer.
The software gives every user the opportunity to use a language of their choice, including the predominant African languages.
Health and safety
“Because Lion is a large project, the health and safety of our employees is important to us,” explains Smith.
At the peak of the project’s development, Xstrata had 2 700 contractors on site with 22 dedicated safety officers, and a total of 6 569 936 working hours, or the equivalent of working 273 days.
Smith explains that all management and supervisors have been trained in legal aspects regarding construction regulations.
Full-time safety officers have been allocated for each area and managers were appointed for each discipline and area of responsibility.
All contractors and employees received induction training, and all personnel were medically screened.
Project, community, and rural development
Smith says that the project has brought some alleviation to an economically depressed area.
Xstrata’s statistics show that with a dependency factor of 4,81, about 40% of the population are over 15.
It also has an unemployment rate of 73%.
Xstrata expects small, medium-sized, and microenterprise (SMME) procurement to be between R60-million and R70-million annually, while the direct and indirect employment cost is expected to be in excess of R250-million a year.
Other plans include skills development through Xstrata’s skills development centre and the development of SMME procurement through the industrial supply park.
Xstrata communications manager, Songezo Zibi, says that a substantial amount of the supplies the operation requires are trucked from elsewhere, usually from Gauteng and other provinces.
The idea is that these suppliers use a warehousing and limited manufacturing park to be built and serviced by Xstrata and a few other mining companies, with the cooperation and assistance of local and district municipalities.
Once it is up and running, says Zibi, it will mean that not all the supplies will be trucked in from afar anymore.
It will also mean that these suppliers can go into joint ventures with local suppliers, thereby facili-tating black economic-empowerment procurement.
“The result is that spending in the North West and Mpumalanga provinces, or any locality, does not all leave the province as it happens now. This, however, is a long-term project that needs the necessary bulk services, but plans are at an advanced stage for this,” states Zibi.
And should market demand mean that phases two and three become approved, direct job creation, owing to projects pioneered by Xstrata, is set to increase by roughly 68% by 2015 from procurement by Xstrata’s Helena mine, and the Lion ferrochrome plant.
Indirect job creation is set to increase by about 61% by 2015 through training and outsourcing as well as the SMME industrial supply park.
Further, the building of the skills development centre is to address operational and project skill needs as well as training for the greater community in life sustainable skills.
The project has already established a procurement database as well as a local labour desk.
The SMME supplier park is an initiative to develop SMME suppliers in the area to supply key commodities to the mining sector.
Xstrata’s SMME and BEE developments include a housing requirement that will be outsourced to a BEE or SMME company.
Also, it has established a BEE/SMME company to provide concrete for Project Lion.
Xstrata has recruited 51% of its work force from local communities on the project in the semiskilled and unskilled areas.
Currently, some 220 members of the local community are undergoing various aspects of training ranging from secretarial skills to artisan training.