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All eyes to the sky. All the people watching are holding their breath.
Above, in the blue South African skies, a gray giant is dangling in the air.
The AR-140 is the biggest version of the MAX1 generation of axial compressors –
the biggest of its kind worldwide. After an epic journey from MAN’s production
site in Germany to Secunda, South Africa, it is now on its final stretch. A
massive, specialized crawler crane has been brought onto the site to lift the
240-metric-ton piece of cutting-edge
technology to its final position. It’s a day in history for Christo du Plooy,
Sales Manager at MAN Diesel & Turbo South Africa: “This first-time
installation of the compressor is a critical and important milestone for us as
a company. It is a big achievement and a great honor for us to be involved in
The compressor is at the heart of the largest air separation unit (ASU)
ever built, with a total capacity of 5,000 metric tons of oxygen per day.
That’s a major improvement from present production capacities of roughly 3,500
metric tons. It is being constructed on SASOL’s synthetic fuels and chemicals
complex in Secunda, but is owned and operated by Air Liquide.
The new ASU will
enable the company to supply large quantities of industrial gases to the
manufacturing processes on site. Without a doubt, this day marks a milestone
for Air Liquide, too. Amine Houssaim, Director for Southern Africa with Air
Liquide Large Industries, has made space in his schedule and driven 130 km from
Johannesburg to witness this special event. “We are convinced that the AIRMAX1
is the compressor that will provide us with the best fit for our design. We
have already been cooperating with MAN in South Africa. So far the cooperation
is very good at each level of the organization. And we are very excited to see
this equipment being lifted today.”
Slowly, the compressor is being moved toward the massive, 11-meter-high
concrete platform. The AIRMAX consists of the main AR140 compressor and a type
RG 71-4 booster compressor, driven by an electric motor, also one of a kind,
which was lifted onto the platform a few days before. Three huge pipes are
sticking out of the gray protective cover. They will be joined to other pipes
already erected around the platform, sucking in and compressing the air from the
atmosphere with an effective volume low rate of over 1 million cubic meters of
air per hour. The air then goes through a cooling unit underneath the platform,
as well as a purification cycle. It then enters the cold box for cryogenic
distillation, where the air is separated into its main constituents oxygen,
nitrogen and argon.
On the ground, workers dressed in full security gear are
holding on tightly to ropes fastened to the compressor, in case the wind picks
up. In the vertiginous heights of the platform, Dennis Müller, German Field
Service Engineer, wearing a harness and safety ropes like an alpinist, is
directing the crane operator toward the right position. “This is precision
work,” Müller points out. He has been deployed in South Africa since October
and will later calibrate the compressor, thrilled about his exciting task.
“Working with the entire team on site has been great. Every one of us has been
anticipating this moment eagerly for the last months.”
The cooperation with MAN is very good at every level.
Amine Houssaim, Director for Southern Africa wih Air Liquide Large Industries
Office staff as well as construction workers have stopped their daily
routine to take a glance on site, watching the progress from a safe distance.
The air of excitement is tangible, despite the fact that some have been working
on massive projects for decades, like Stehan van der Post, Project Director for
“The construction of the concrete structure supporting the
compressor has been a challenge. A lot of rebar was required, which made the
pouring of the concrete technically difficult. The 11-meter-high columns were
done in a single pour. That makes this lift special. There is a sense of
accomplishment for the team. It is something tangible that demonstrates the
fruits of our labor.”
But the excitement has not been restricted just to the
site, Tamzin Womarans adds with a smile. As the Team Leader Spare Parts, Sales
& Service at MAN Diesel & Turbo South Africa, she too has been involved
with this flagship project since the inception just over two years ago. “It has
been a constant topic of discussions at our offices in Johannesburg,” she says.
“Everyone is always asking for updates on how everything is with the
compressor. So it is definitely a proud moment for all of us.” There is no
doubt that the AIRMAX solution will be a game changer, setting new standards
for the entire industry in terms of dimensions and efficiency. “Over the years,
the traditional concepts were to just
keep scaling up the machines,” recounts Christo du Plooy. “It would have
reached a size which is unimaginable.”
Obviously these technologies are clearly
outdated in a time of growing awareness and global needs to save energy and
reduce the carbon footprint, at the same time providing solutions for a growing
population. The AIRMAX addresses all these challenges. It is the most compact
concept in the market, yet still the most efficient one. Two trains of large
air separation units can now be replaced by a single one, and for the standard
pressures there is only one intercooler needed. The design of the new axial blading
and the subsequent radial diffuser have been optimized with methods used in the
aircraft engine industry. All components have been optimized for efficiency,
the lowest possible power consumption and superior performance. “The sheer efficiency
and the technology that we are implementing here is probably a few decades more
mature than existing technology,” du Plooy emphasizes.
Certainly this is also in the interests of the customer, Air Liquide.
Replacing two trains with one results in significant cost savings. The efforts
for site construction, operations and maintenance are also lower due to the
compact, modular design. “We obviously benefit from economy of scale,” says
Amine Houssaim. “We are very happy that today MAN has a solution that can
accommodate this size as well as the efficiency that we are targeting.” South
Africa has been facing serious energy constraints for a number of years, with
energy costs increasing. More efficiency is also needed to reach climate-change
goals. Like other companies, Air Liquide is engaged in optimizing the efficiency
of its operations, thus reducing the energy footprint. An engagement that is
certainly not limited to the air separation industry, as another recent project
shows. In spring 2017, MAX1 technology convinced the first customer outside
this branch, coming into play here for the production of steel. This strongly
underlines the fact that efficiency is key throughout the industries worldwide.
Slowly the compressor is being lowered onto the platform. Everything
goes perfectly well. “We are on track in terms of planning and very eager to
see this plant commissioned,” confirms Houssaim. After the plant has been
commissioned, MAN Diesel & Turbo South Africa will take over its role in
terms of maintenance, service and support, in order to ensure that the machines
are run at optimal levels. Christo du Plooy is proud of his team and of the
company as a whole: “A big shout-out goes to the team in the headquarters in
Germany for their research, innovation and development, as well as for
supplying everything within quality and time. It just showcases what we can
achieve working together as a team.” He’s convinced that this is only the start
of a new, exciting and successful chapter for the company. All eyes up – the
sky is the limit.
The lift required the highest precision from everybody involved.
Field Service Engineer with MAN Diesel & Turbo in Germany
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