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Company news

Local Argon Gas Shortages to Ease

The local shortage of argon gas should ease significantly over the next three to four months as new manufacturing facilities near completion, reports gas manufacturer Air Products South Africa.
The past two years have seen a prevailing shortage of argon gas in South Africa, as well as the steadily increasing consumption of the gas, resulting in higher demand than supply, says Air Products South Africa bulk gas division national sales manager Sachin Kulkarni.
This is due to the gas’s pivotal role in the metals manufacturing and fabrication processes, which include automotive, construction and metals processing.
“Steel fabrication was strong in 2009, and the building of stadiums, rail and road transportation and other facilities in 2010, increased the demand for oxygen and argon, two essential gases in the processes of cutting and welding,” says Kulkarni.
Continuing Growth
The growth in demand for gases such as argon will continue as long as South Africa and other Pan-African countries require large-scale infrastructure development and construction.
Air Products believes that an artificial shortage was a contributing factor to the current supply shortage.
In the last quarter of 2008, the demand for oxygen, and, correspondingly, argon ped, resulting in the reduction of operating and manufacturing capacity, says Air Products South Africa supply chain manager Nalen Alwar.
Once the demand for more ferrous-based grades of steel rebounded, some argon manufacturers experienced challenges in increasing argon gas manufacturing operations, partly owing to the global recession and power cuts, as well as increased power tariffs and argon prices.
“Some interest was shown in importing argon gas; however, owing to lead times and the costs involved, this was not deemed a viable option. “For the bulk gas sector, owing to its incremental requirements of about five to ten tons a day, it would be difficult to ensure sufficient and timely delivery from shipping containers,” says Alwar.
He adds that the steel market, which is difficult to predict, drives the yearly capacity required to meet argon demand.
Argon Availability
However, sufficient quantities of argon gas should become available to the market over the next few months.
“Air Products South Africa is in a strong position to cater for current and future argon gas demand,” he says.
The company has made a significant investment in installing an argon manufacturing facility in northern KwaZulu-Natal, in November 2008, and another gas producer is currently installing a new facility at Secunda, which should also ease the argon shortage, Alwar concludes.
Engineering News previously reported that a 3 500-t/d air separation unit was being developed for petroleum giant Sasol and that this should offset the need for significant argon imports, which had become necessary owing to welding market growth ahead of the recession.
The plant is expected to increase South Africa’s argon production by more that 25% and will be marketed through industrial gas group Air Liquide’s existing supply chain in bulk, or compressed into cylinders at Air Liquide’s filling stations around the country.