Titanium dioxide industry–a case of missed opportunity

Excerpt:

Director

Nandini Consultancy Centre

M 60/1, 4th Cross Street, Besant Nagar, Chennai – 600090

Introduction

Titanium dioxide is a white pigment used extensively paint, coating and host of other industries.

There are two grades of titanium dioxide namely anatase and rutile, which have their distinguish application areas.

There are two process routes for production of titanium dioxide namely sulphate process and chloride process.

By chloride process, only rutile grade TiO2 pigment can be produced. By sulphate process, both rutile grade and anatase grade TiO2 pigment can be produced.

Ilmenite ore is the starting material for production of titanium dioxide pigment.

History of titanium dioxide units in India

First Titanium dioxide unit in India

Titanium dioxide industry was started in India in 1950 in Thiruvananthapuram, in Kerala due to the foresightedness of Dr. C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer, the then Diwan of Travancore. The company is Travancore Titanium Products Ltd, (founded by a British company and later on taken over by Government of Kerala), which originally had capacity of 4 tonne per day of anatase titanium dioxide by sulphate process, which was successfully expanded to capacity of 10 tonne per day and then successfully expanded to capacity of 18 tonne per day, when it was operating at 100% capacity utilization.

The capacity was then expanded to 68 tonne per day to produce anatase and rutile grade titanium dioxide by sulphate process based on inhouse technology of the unit. The expansion became a fiasco due to technology constraints and finally the unit settled down to capacity of around 45 tonne per day producing only anatase grade titanium dioxide.

The unit is now confronted with serious environmental issues due to letting out free sulphuric acid of low strength into the nearby sea. There have been public protest by the affected fishermen and the unit has been given several warnings by the environmental authorities. The problem remains still unresolved due to several issues.

The unit does not have any convincing capacity expansion proposal at present due to unsolved environmental issue.

Second unit in India.

The second unit in India (Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd.) was set-up in Kerala in public sector by Kerala government to produce rutile grade titanium dioxide by chloride process, supported by overseas technologies. After suffering unacceptable level of delay, the unit was finally commissioned, overcame the teething problems and is now functioning satisfactorily.

However, the unit has not been able to significantly expand the capacities for which there is no justification. The unit has been talking about capacity expansion for several years now.

This unit is also now facing some problem in disposing the solid sludge and this is a grim issue faced by the unit. The unit is yet to implement steps to adequately treat the solid sludge for disposal.

Third unit in India

A third project was set-up in Kalyani, in West Bengal by Indian Oxygen Ltd. with capacity of 5 tonne per day to produce anatase TiO2 by sulphate process based on indigenous technology. The unit faced a lot of teething problems and Indian Oxygen Ltd. sold away it's equity to a private firm, which revived the unit successfully. However, the capacity could not be expanded since there is no way to let out the treated effluent, as the basic decision on the choice of location was flawed and wrong. The unit is reported to be not in operation now and has been sold away to another company.

Fourth unit in India

A unit was set-up in Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu known as Kilburn Chemicals to produce anatase grade titanium dioxide by sulphate process. The unit was rechristened as V V Titanium Pigments Pvt. Ltd. and is operating satisfactorily, with little scope for capacity expansion in a big way due to effluent disposal issue.

Failed efforts for TiO2 project

Several efforts have been made to build capacity for titanium dioxide project in India in the past, which have failed. A few cases are given below.

Proposed Tata's project in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu

Tata group wanted to set-up a large Titanium dioxide project by chloride process at Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu with capacity of 100,000 tonne per annum. The project did not materialize, due to the problem in land acquisition issue. Tata group wanted to acquire 2000 acres of land at one stroke including for mining operations. It was not really necessary. Tata Group could have settled for just around 250 acres and implemented the titanium dioxide project by bringing ilmenite from Odisha, instead of taking mining project also at Tuticorin.

If necessary, Tata Group could have gone for mining operation at later stage after winning the confidence of the local population and acquiring the land.

Tata Group lost a glorious investment opportunity. Tamil Nadu Government which supported the Tata Group project and India also lost the glorious opportunity.

Proposed project in Odisha

An attempt was made to set-up a titanium dioxide pigment plant in Odisha by Prudhvi Industries, an Andhra Pradesh based group with capacity of 15000 tonne per annum by sulphate process based on technology from Eastern Europe. The technology agreement was successfully signed in principle. Mr. Biju Patnaik, former Chief Minister of Odisha agreed to support the project as joint venture. However, the project could not take off, as the project promoters could not successfully complete financial closure.

Thapar group proposed to set-up a chloride process TiO2 pigment plant in Odisha earlier with technology from USA. This did not take off at all.

Another effort to set-up titania slag and titanium dioxide pigment project in Odisha with Russian collaboration also failed due to the difference of opinion between the promoters.

Factors influencing the position for new TiO2 pigment projects in India.

Global scenario

Global installed capacity for titanium dioxide is around 7 million tonne per annum and production/demand is around 5.7 million tonne per annum. The product is produced in different countries across the world. Global growth rate in demand is around 3 to 4% per year.

China has around 50% of installed capacity of the global production of titanium dioxide, though several units are of uneconomic and small size by sulphate process and do not adequately adhere to the environment standards. A few of them are likely to be closed down in the near future due to stringent environmental regulations being implemented by Government of China.

Indian demand supply scenario

India is now net importer of titanium dioxide pigment, with the domestic production no where meeting the national need.

Traditionally, demand for titanium dioxide pigment has matched the GDP growth and such trend is likely to continue.

As the titanium dioxide is used in the cross section of industries, the demand will certainly increase at 7 to 8% per annum both for anatase and rutile titanium dioxide pigment.

Indian TiO2 pigment production is not competitive in the international market mainly due the fact that the adequate number of grades meeting the specification of increasing pattern of consumers in the global market are not being met.

Technology

Though chloride process technology is operating in India, Indian requirement of technology for the future project has to necessarily met by acquiring technology from abroad.

Unlike several other products, there are only one or two technology suppliers abroad for TiO2 pigment project by chloride process. Therefore, technology has to be obtained from an organisation, who are already involved in TiO2 pigment production abroad, with capability to transfer technology. This is possible.

Raw material

India has large deposits of ilmenite in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, which is reported to be around 12% of the world reserves. Indian reserves is now estimated to be more than 150 million tonne.

In spite of such reserves of ilmenite, India is now importing large quantity of ilmenite from Africa through Tuticorin port, which speaks volume about the lack of mining capacity, inability to optimise the production in the mines and expand the mine capacity. There are reported to be some irksome labour/political issue in expanding the mining sites in Kerala, though there have been no such report regarding Odisha.

The quality standards of ilmenite available in Odisha are said to be better than the ilmenite deposits in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. While the titanium content in Kerala ilmenite is 58%, Tamil Nadu ilmenite is 54% and Odisha ilmenite is 50%, the chromium content in Odisha ilmenite is much lower, which is an important factor in ilmenite specification.

What way forward now?

Today, there is absolutely no reason for not building large capacities for titanium dioxide pigment in India.

Capacity creation and project location

Considering the present gap in domestic supply and prospects for growth in demand, India has to take urgent step to build capacity for 300,000 tonne per annum of TiO2 pigment.

Chloride process has to be employed, for which feedstock are ilmenite and chlorine. Both the feedstocks are adequately available in the country.

Considering the large investment level, five TiO2 pigment plants of capacity 60,000 tonne per annum each can be considered for implementation, one each in Odisha, Kerala, TamilNadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra or Gujarat.

Capacity of 60,000 tonne per annum is likely to incur project cost of around Rs.600 crores, which would represent the economic size.

New TiO2 pigment plant has to be necessarily located near the coastal region.

Further, there is need to expand the capacity of anatase TiO2 pigment also, in view of the increasing domestic demand. Anatase TiO2 pigment can only be produced by sulphate process and not by chloride process. The existing anatase TiO2 pigment producers can be encouraged to expand the capacity from time to time, in tune with the growth in demand by introducing balancing and additional equipment.

Need to increase ilmenite mining capacity

There is urgent need to increase the ilmenite mining capacity, which can be done in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra immediately.

Constitute a task force

A task force to implement the titanium dioxide project should be immediately constituted to implement the project schemes by 2021 which is possible, as India has no disadvantages on the titanium dioxide project scheme. Just as the Government of India has taken decision to revive urea fertiliser plants and now to put coal gasification plant/coal to methanol plant, titanium dioxide plant also needs high level of support from Government of India.

Government of India may announce it's decision to implement titanium dioxide project in joint sector, with Government of India participating along with Indian promoters, foreign technology supplier and foreign equity partners.

The task force may prepare a detailed action plan within three months, including a pre feasibility report. This is possible, since enough knowledge is available in the country to undertake this task.

Case for titania slag project

Apart from titanium dioxide, a titania slag project should also be implemented in Odisha by electro smelting reduction of ilmenite. Ilmenite ore contains titanium and iron. Titania slag project would produce titania slag and pig iron. 50,000 tonne per annum titania slag project would produce around 27,000 tonne per annum of pig iron. Titania slag can be used as starting material for titanium dioxide production and pig iron has huge demand in India.

Number of titania slag plants are in operation abroad in Canada, South Africa, Norway and a large plant is under construction in Middle East region at present.

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