Stories and Traveltips

ID #1214

Early Days at Sasol, Sasolburg, Northern Free State.

After graduating from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1970, I joined Sasol, the synthetic fuel-from-coal producer in Sasolburg as a junior process engineer. I spent a brief induction period doing shift work on the ammonia plant, after which I was appointed to Technical Services. As secretary of the “Synthol Applied Research Committee,” my job was to co-ordinate research and development, meetings, etc regarding the process in which synthesis gas (a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen) is converted into a spectrum of hydrocarbons, including petrol (gasoline), kerosene and diesel. Inherently hazardous, the process lies at the heart of the synthetic fuel-from-coal operation. At the time it was plagued with difficulties and I took my work, trying to find ways to improve the operation, seriously. 

Problems in the Synthol plants were not the result of inadequate skills and manpower. The expert on the process was a German by the name of Dr Hans Pichler, who had left by the time I arrived. His colleagues, who had been with Sasol from the very beginning, included Dr. Thomas as well Messers Schultz and Ralph Lowenstein. Others who joined later included Richard Bettman, Mark Dry, Izak Marais and Joachim Zimmer. When I joined they had been struggling with the process for 18 years and were, quite rightly, cautious about implementing new ideas. Furthermore said caution is appropriate when dealing with such hazardous processes. 

Richard Bettman was however an exception. An intuitive thinker, he had difficulty communicating his ideas and was, as a result, frustrated. I too had difficulty understanding him.  However, at the insistence of Pat Walton, my boss at the time, I spent two hours with him each day, starting immediately after the morning meeting in the Shift Control Room.

Initially I had no idea what he was trying to say. However, after three months of frustrating debate, it became clearer. Like most good ideas, his was simple. There is an inefficient step in the process (reforming) and he wanted to minimize its impact by bypassing it entirely. Interestingly, the process had been designed to operate in this manner from the very beginning. But because of the difficulties that had been encountered in the interim, he enjoyed little support from his colleagues on the committee.

So it fell to me to try to persuade the committee of the merits of his idea. I spent months digging through dust-covered files in the basement to gather support for the various theories that were bandied about. Fortunately I enjoyed the guarded support of the factory manager, Sakkie Marais.  Finally, after much debate, Jaochim Zimmer, the manager of the Synthol Plant, agreed to a test run. Being skeptical however, he imposed several strict conditions – we were only able to conduct the test on one of the units, it had to start at 07h00 at the beginning of the shift, at the first sign of any difficulties the test would be aborted, etc.

On the fateful morning of the trial I woke up at 05h00 and dressed hurriedly, anxious to see the result of weeks of preparation. I drove from my flat straight towards the winter sun rising through the smokestacks of the factory. Unable to see, I heard a shout and then a loud bang. I had knocked over a milk delivery bicycle and my car, the twisted bicycle and the road were covered with broken bottles and 300 liters of milk. Undeterred by the accident, I drove to the factory, arriving just before the scheduled start of the test. Ivan Spence however found time to berate me for attempting to implement such ridiculous ideas. He mentioned all sorts of problems that were certain to occur as a result – fluffy catalyst, sticky gunk, printers ink, and so on. And quite rightly, for he was in the firing line if anything went wrong.

At 07h00, exactly on schedule, the switch was made and the reformers were bypassed while everyone held their breath. Strangely, nothing happened -- it was a non-event. One thing we did notice was that charts in the control room that had been bouncing around for years settled down. And the steam turbines which drove the recycle compressors stopped surging. But nothing else. We waited and waited – still nothing. After several hours the telephone rang. It was from the supervisor of the tank farm who said we should stop whatever we were doing because he could not keep up with the volume of product being transferred to the tank farm. He was notified, in no uncertain terms, that his problem was the least of our concerns.

The problems that Ivan had mentioned did occur. Fortunately, however, they did not affect the operability of the plant. The efficiency improved dramatically and, in time, all of the Synthol units were converted to the new method of operation. Later, the concepts were implemented in the larger Sasol plants built in the 1980’s at Secunda in Mpumalanga which are, incidentally, the only commercially-viable synthetic oil-from-coal plants in the world.

I later resigned to pursue my career elsewhere. However, I remain grateful to the people at Sasol who placed their trust and faith in someone so young. The experience will remain with me always. Whether or not their successors appreciate the contribution made by these early pioneers is uncertain.

Sasolburg is on the R57 south of its intersection with the Vaal River, which is south of Vanderbijlpark, which is on the R57 south of its intersection with the N1, which is southwest of Johannesburg. Alan McIver NFEarly


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Last update: 2014-02-28 22:33
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.4

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