By Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is CEO of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants
A South African engineering company has revived its business through a methane energy project in Rwanda.
Prior to COVID-19, the South African economy was already taking a substantial knock. A sector particularly hard hit has been engineering. We have witnessed the damage done to major engineering construction companies, which had risen to be among the best in the world.
The urgency of the situation caused some local engineering companies to look elsewhere for business. One such company is ARINT Engineering based in Centurion. They found work in other African countries.
One project that I find interesting from a technological point of view is a methane energy project in Rwanda. It is an engineering project to extract methane gas from a deep lake and then feed it to electricity-generating internal combustion engines. The Rwandan lake is Lake Kivu. It is huge and rather unique. Kivu is nearly ten times the size of the Vaal Dam.
The lake contains exceptionally large amounts of dissolved carbon dioxide and methane. It is also exceptionally deep, at some 480 metres. The massive water pressure keeps the gasses dissolved.
The carbon dioxide originates from two active volcanoes near the lake, the Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo. The volcanoes are among the most active in the world, and drive deep warm water, containing dissolved CO2 into the bottom of the lake. Some interesting science keeps the warm water at the bottom of the lake.
Find out more about this project:
Lake Kivu Integrated Methane Gas Extraction and Power Production Facility
Organic material falling from the lake surface then interacts with microorganisms that use the dissolved CO2 to produce methane. But the immense pressure of the water keeps the methane dissolved in the water at the bottom. There is a huge amount of methane there, which is highly profitable to extract, and is enough to drive a reasonable power station.
The engineering challenge is to get it out and to productively produce electricity. That is where ARINT is involved. A consortium of international companies is currently extracting the methane. But this is particularly dangerous work and has to be done professionally and correctly. All sorts of things can go-bump-in-the-night if you make mistakes.
ARINT operates from its headquarters in Centurion but maintains a team at Lake Kivu. They ensure that operations are carried out in accordance with international standards. The processes and instructions are drawn up in Centurion and are then sent to Rwanda for implementation. These include; safety procedures and environmental management, amongst others.
It is well-known in the industry that if you carry out work in a safe and responsible manner it turns out to be the most cost-effective. Aside from professional engineers, part of the ARINT team is a rigger and a welding inspector. If you don’t get rigging right, something large and valuable can fall, leading to loss of time in redoing the job, let alone the cost of possibly rebuilding a smashed assembly.
The same holds true for welding. A weld failure could lead to having to re-weld the assembly, but at worst could lead to a catastrophic failure, which could cause loss of life or massive damage. Getting it right the first time is good business sense. Those who know something about welding know that there is a huge difference between welding a gate post on the farm, and a high integrity weld for a high-pressure gas line. Real chalk and cheese! So welding inspection means X-rays and such like; looking for any tiny cracks or inclusions. Producing a good professional design on how to get it right is the sensible place to start.
In engineering, there are formal procedures for a handover from the fabrication function to a ready-to-use function. Such handover effectively transfers responsibility from one set of management to another. Clearly, whoever is taking responsibility for running the operation on a production basis does not want to sign for some system that may be faulty. So comprehensive paper designs are essential.
While there are international standards for such things, they all have to be adapted to circumstances. Interestingly, ARINT has also designed a major engineering system in France. ARINT MD Francois Mellett told me, with some amusement, that they had to find a site in France “far away from inhabited areas”. The best they could do in France was to use an existing sheep farm. There are no remote bush areas there, as there are here.
Of course, operating in France is completely different to operating in Rwanda. So a significant benefit of South African companies looking for work in foreign countries is the experience of being able to operate under very different conditions.
I believe that South Africans are particularly good at this because life in South Africa has always been a case of operating in diverse and extreme areas, in comparison to many European countries who have been conditioned to face much less diverse environments, both geographically and politically speaking.
So any inducement to South African companies to operate in other African countries should stand them in good stead in the future. Any expanded vision gained now can only be beneficial in due course.
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is CEO of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company based in Pretoria. He carries out business strategy development and project planning in a wide variety of fields for diverse clients. Stratek@pixie.co.za