ASA Metals (Pty) Ltd: The power of the partnership

firesThe word partnership has come to mean an awful lot to South African businesses, particularly those looking to make their mark on the international stage. At ASA Metals (Pty) Ltd the philosophy of partnership is absolutely embodied in the business culture.

The company was formed in November 1996, as the result of a joint venture between East Asia Metals Investment Co. Ltd.(EAMI)  and Limpopo Economic Development Enterprise (LimDev).

EAMI is a 100 per cent subsidiary of Chinese giant Sinosteel Corporation, based in Beijing, owning 60 per cent of the shares in ASA Metals, with LimDev holding the balance.

ASA Metals was set up to mine the Dilokong Chrome Mine situated against a hillside and located roughly 30 kilometres from Burgersfort on the R37 to Polokwane. Whist the history of ASA Metals might be relatively brief, the mine supersedes the business by 30 years, having been founded as a Government training mine, prior to ASA Metals obtaining the full shareholding.

The Dilokong Mine’s location is significant – sited on the eastern rim of the lucrative Bushveld Igneous Complex (BIC). It is reported that approximately 83 per cent of the world’s currently mineable ore reserves are found in the BIC.

The BIC itself is saucer-shaped and located in northern South Africa. Chromite ore, such as is found at Dilokong Mine, is mined along both the eastern and western rims of the complex.

South Africa’s importance as a producer of chromite ore is unquestionable, with world production at around 14 million tons, the nation is responsible for about 39 per cent. 

The latest example of partnership came in June of this year when it was announced that Jubilee Platinum had formed an agreement with ASA Metals to build a processing plant to extract platinum group metals (PGMs) and chrome from tailings.

At the time of the report on Business Day, parties were still in talks about expanding the plant to include third-party material.

Jubilee’s subsidiary, Pollux Investment already has the right to process and recover PGMs in 800,000 tonnes of tailings at the Dilokong Chrome Mine and smelter owned by ASA Metals. The tailings contain about 74,000oz of four PGMs. The agreement with ASA entails the construction of a plant next to the smelter to extract PGMs and chrome. ASA will provide water and electricity to build and operate the plant.

The plant will reportedly treat 180,000 tonnes a year of tailings. ASA’s operations will add between 8,000 and 12,000 tonnes of tailings a month to the stockpile.

Jubilee and ASA were in “advanced” talks about expanding the plant to process other parties’ chrome and platinum-bearing ore. “Numerous chrome mining opportunities are being explored in the region that require access to a purpose-designed PGM and chrome processing facility which offers a partnership with a ferrochrome producer,” Jubilee’s CEO Leon Coetzer announced. 

Operationally the company uses conventional scraper mining methods to reach the ore, which is drilled and blasted before being scraped mechanically to loading points, where it is moved to the shaft tips in hoppers, pulled by locomotives. From there the ore is brought to the surface by conveyor belts which have been installed in the incline shaft.

Once at the surface, the ore goes through a series of processes aimed at sizing, classifying and separating, which helps to remove any pyroxenite waste from the chromite.

At this point, any foundry sand created during the production process is stockpiled for export, while the lumpy chromite and metallurgical concentrates are transported to ASA Metals’ smelter.

Meanwhile, at the smelter, charge chrome is produced through a single stage process by smelting a mix of chromite, reductant and fluxes at temperatures in excess of 2000°C.

Today ASA Metals operates at Dilokong with 2 smelters and is able to produce charge ferrochrome with an annual capacity of 120,000 Mt. The finished product is typically earmarked for export, with ASA Metals selling to Japan, Europe, China, Korea and Taiwan. 

Backed with its foreign investment, in 2009 the company had added 2 further closed smelting furnaces of 66 MVA and a 600,000 ton per year pelletising and sintering plant.

Electrical energy has to be applied to the furnaces for the desired chemical reaction to take place and the molten waste slag and metallic charge chrome are drained on a regular basis (from the smelting furnaces) and separated via skimmers.

mining-Once the metal ingots have cooled, a crushing and screening beneficiation step takes place which enables the production of sized charge chrome. This in turn is then prepared for the world’s stainless steel markets. 

Of course safety is a constant consideration within the mining environment and in July the company was able to announced that it had achieved 3 million fatality-free shifts at its Dilikong Chrome Mine, becoming the fourth enterprise and the first Chinese one in South Africa, to accomplish this feat.

ASA Metals employs over 2,300 people with half of them working underground. A supervising team of about 80 people ensures they do it correctly by monitoring the whole process 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. ”If you can’t do it safely, then you don’t do it, or you find means to do it safely,” Mine Manager Hardley Ramokgadi told People’s Daily Online.

ASA has learnt from the past accidents, which put them in a situation where they continuously improve their system. ASA arrange their employees, from the top to the bottom, to receive focused safety training.

The company’s performance regarding SHEQ (safety, health, environment and quality) has experienced a paradigm shift in terms of risk management – from being labeled the worst mine in the Limpopo province to one of the best today.

“We know that our employees are our most valuable assets, whom we must take care of in our operations,” said Fengzhi Nan, the chairman of ASA. “We care about the quality of our people. We continuously develop our people in all areas, providing a healthy working environment for all our workers. We take responsibility for our safety production. We live and work at all times without endangering ourselves, without endangering our environment and all others around us.”