Modular process plants spell success for Adelaide engineering company

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An Adelaide-based engineering company has developed a unique way of building modular process plants for the global mining industry, particularly uranium mines.

Adelaide Control Engineering (ACE) designs and develops processing plants based on shipping container-sized modules. They are all manufactured and pre-commissioned in Adelaide, minimising transport and installation costs. The big benefit is that they are especially suited to remote sites where skilled labour is scarce.

"Uranium mines are usually built in very remote locations. It's very hard to get skilled laborers and tradesmen to assemble plants. It's also very hard to control the quality, workmanship and outcome," owner/manager Glenn Jobling said.

"If you're missing a nut or a bolt, it's not just a matter of going to Bunnings and picking it up in 10 minutes. Everything is much harder, takes much longer and, in the end, costs more.

"So, we decided we would focus on continuous smaller plants pre-built, commissioned and tested in Adelaide, before taking the modules to the mining sites. It's basically plug and play - just re-connect the modules on site and begin processing ."

According to Glenn, another bonus of these modular plants is that they are continuous plants that can run 24/7.

"If you run 24/7, it doesn't need to have a large rate per hour. The throughput rate can be one-third of a typical plant that only runs eight hours a day," he said.

"Therefore, all components can be smaller and less expensive. And you can run them fully automated, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

This allows the plant to produce a significant amount of product with low capital and operating costs.

The six-person company of electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, process engineers and design draftsman has more than 160 combinedyears of industrial experience across many industries, including chemical, power generation, food, manufacturing, mining, pulp and paper. It has also built up a strong network of local suppliers for parts and equipment.

While its core business are these modular process plants, the company has also worked with clients to develop process pilot demonstration plants.

"With our skill set, we've been able to design and build a number of new technology larger pilot plants. This is particularly useful for clients who may spend a billion dollars or more on a fully commercialised process, where they've only ever run their plant at laboratory scale," Glenn said.

We had been in contact with ICN over many years, and ICN knew that we had the skillset, experience and ability - and had delivered many technically complex projects over many years

Glenn Jobling

"If you're going to invest a billion dollars or more, you want a lot more confidence than just small batches made in a laboratory. You need to de-risk the project by running it continuously for an extended period of time, say one to two months. So you need to build a pilot plant that you can run for an extended period of time. We've built quite a number of those plants."

ACE has recently helped Flinders University commercialise a new polymer, called polysulphide, made primarily from waste oil and sulphur. It tied in well with ACE's core focus, as the product has the potential to replace mercury in mining processes.

In 2015 Professor Justin Chalker and his team developed polysulphide, but unless it could be produced in commercial quantities it had no value to any potential investor. They approached ICN to help find a company that could help.

"We had been in contact with ICN over many years, and ICN knew that we had the skillset, experience and ability - and had delivered many technically complex projects over many years," Glenn said.

"We spoke to Flinders and initially said, 'Let's scale it as a batch process, from .5kg to 15 kg'."

The batch scale demonstration enabled Flinders sell the rights and patents to a commercial investor.

However, ACE soon realised that the batch process was not efficient.

"What happens in the batch process is that, at the end of each batch, you have to get all the material out, clean all the equipment, and spend as much time planning and preparing for the next batch as it took to manufacture the batch.

"We soon realised that the batch process wasn't going to be able to produce the volume required by the market, so we embarked upon converting it to a continuous process."

The process took several years of development. It was much more complex than they initially thought it would be. But at the end, the engineers at ACE overcame the challenge.

"We were all proud of what we had achieved," Glenn said. "At one stage some of us thought that it would be impossible. We hadn't given up, but there were concerns about being able to achieve it.

"I was quite confident that we were right on the cusp of getting it right. And then we achieved success."

The company's success with other modular build processing plants enabled its success on this longer-term complex project.

"You need to keep innovating and doing things better," Glenn said.

Find out more about Adelaide Control Engineering.

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