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Title: Increasing the use of fibre-reinforced composites in the Sasol group of companies : a case study
Authors: Mouton, Jacques 
Keywords: Sasol;Composite materials;Fibrous composites;Materials;Materials science;Polymeric composites
Issue Date: 2007
A composite material comprises two or more materials with properties that are superior to those of the individual constituents. Composites have become important engineering materials, especially in the fields of chemical plant, automotive, aerospace and marine engineering. The development of more advanced materials and manufacturing techniques in composites has grown from humble beginnings in the 1930s to a recognized and well-respected engineering discipline, providing solutions to conventional and challenging applications. At present, fibre-reinforced composites (FRCs) are amongst the most common types of composites used. They are produced in various forms with different structural properties, and designers, specifiers and end-users can choose from an almost endless list of these materials, providing design flexibility as well as low manufacturing and maintenance cost. Many suggest that composites have revolutionised the chemical and petro-chemical industries. Examples of applications include tanks and chemical reactor vessels that contains many hundreds of litres of hazardous chemicals, reinforced pipes measuring up to several meters in diameter conveying dangerous gases and so on.

The South Africa Coal, Oil and Gas Corporation Limited (SASOL) was established in September 1950. From a small start-up, the company has grown to be a world leader in the commercial production of liquid fuels and chemicals from coal and crude oil. Sasol manufactures more than 200 fuel and chemical products at its main plants in Sasolburg and Secunda in South Africa as well as at several other plants abroad. Its products are exported to more than 90 countries around the world.

The use of composites in general, and fibre reinforced composites in particular has received little support in Sasol through the years. Some sporadic use of these materials in the construction of process equipment, e.g. tanks, vessels and piping has taken place with varying degrees of success. While the use of equipment fabricated with fibre-reinforced composites has proven extremely successful in the chlorine producing facility in Sasolburg, catastrophic failures have taken place in Secunda in critical fire water systems made of these materials.

The history of correct use and application of fibre-reinforced equipment has shown that the cost of ownership of such equipment is significantly lower than similar metallic equipment, therefore reducing costs and safety risks. However, even though this technology brings a company like Sasol closer to the realisation of the vast number of advantages and solutions offered by these materials, the reality is that most engineering personnel are still applying traditional (viz. steel and wood) technology as used by our predecessors. The work presented here attempts to indicate the relevance of fibre-reinforced composites for Sasol, and to detail efforts aimed at the raising of awareness amongst appropriate personnel at Sasol to increase the use of these materials in major capital projects and day-to-day maintenance contracts, therefore taking advantage of the superior performance of fibre-reinforced composites in demanding applications. In support of this drive, part of the work presented indicates the status as well as progress of the composites industry in the last few years.

This project was therefore aimed at identifying the level of utilization of fibre-reinforced composites at Sasol, and the possible improvement in benefits of using these technologies. A methodology was developed, using engineering as well as marketing principles, to reach the engineering personnel in various divisions and seniority levels of Sasol to increase the awareness of the capabilities of composites materials, specifically regarding fibre-reinforced composites. Questionnaires were used to gauge the level of awareness while various methods, e.g. one-on-one meetings, seminars, conferences, electronic media, etc were used to upgrade the target groups’ knowledge. The results of the initial survey to determine the status of various dimensions in the company are indicated as well as the outcomes at the end of the research period. In support of the process in Sasol, the development, interaction and cross-pollination of international and national role-players in the fibre-reinforcement industry with respect to chemical containment and Sasol are indicated. The importance of this two-legged process is demonstrated: it ensures a professional national support framework for companies like Sasol. Results are indicated, compared and discussed to give future direction in this ongoing process.

As important to this process was the development of appropriate technical resources (like design standards and codes) to enable their use within the group. It was recognised early on that raising the level of awareness of the target groups was not enough and that these resources had to be in-place down the line so that those who chose to could start to implement these material technologies with the aid of the resources. The development of the necessary resources is also discussed.

Finally, it will be shown that significant growth has taken place regarding the awareness within the group over the course of implementation of this project. Specifically, about 20% of the target groups have moved from a stage of no knowledge to higher levels of confidence. In terms of use of these materials, significant growth has also taken place judging by the number of plant requests, activity on major capital projects and so on. In fact, from almost nothing in 1999, over the last 5 years in excess of R137 Million has been spent on capital equipment manufactured from composite materials, with the majority in the last 2 years.
Submitted in fulfilment of Doctoral in Technology: Mechanical Engineering), Durban University of Technology, Durban, South Africa, 2007.
Appears in Collections:Theses and dissertations (Engineering and Built Environment)

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