Seventy years of manufacturing titanium dioxide has been chalked up by Tronox, with the whitening specialist now charting its path to a greener future.
The huge plant’s first batch left the sprawling South Humber Bank site in 1953, under the National Titanium Pigments name. Since then it has staggeringly scaled up annual production capability from 5,000 to 165,000 tonnes, providing the brilliant white powder that can colour almost any material – adding opacity, brightness and protection to countless everyday items.
In the 70 year stretch, it has operated under seven names, with Laporte, SCM, Millennium Inorganic Chemicals, Lyondell and Cristal all above the Stallingborough gatehouse before the latest deal between the Saudi operator and US giant completed in 2019. It is the largest plant outside of the US, employing 360 people directly, and a regular contractor workforce of more than 100.
Dutch national Jeroen Kossen is site director, having succeeded Andrew Ward just over a year ago. And while there has been much looking back with employees, families and stakeholders, the focus is very much the future. “It has been here 70 years, delivering brilliance in the region, and we are working hard to make sure we are here for the next 70 years,” he said. “We are on plan, we have broken some production and quality records this year, she is an old lady but she can still do that as we do everything to maintain and improve her.
“The plant is 70 years old, it needs some tender loving care to run, but we have double digit million pounds spent per year on the plant. We are getting the right support to continually invest in the plant and continually improve. We have developed our strategy looking at the next 70 years. We want to be a leader in safety, we want to be recognised as reliability leaders with flexible operations, delivering on customers requirements – we need to make sure we are agile.
“We have the luxury here, our research and development team, looking at new products for the future and reducing emissions.”
And it is the green agenda that provides both opportunity and challenge for a site blessed with being in the midst of the Energy Estuary, while producing what is a global commodity. “We require steam and electricity, we’re looking at how we can reduce reliance on steam and increase electricity,” Mr Kossen said. “We have offshore wind farms, a solar farm emerging in our back yard and a lot of opportunities to decarbonise.
“We are exploring green hydrogen – also to be produced next door – as well as energy from waste, the Humber Zero plan for carbon capture and storage too, we are exploring various options. There is lots of exciting stuff going on that can support us in an exciting journey ro 2030.”
Tronox, globally, has set 2050 as Net Zero, but with the UK and Europe at the fore, ambition has seen it advanced in a cluster that includes Thann in France and Botlek in Holland.
“We can be the best site in the world, but we need to remain competitive,” Mr Kossen said. “If we were to switch on to green hydrogen at the current market price, it is not the commercially right decision. We are working with communities and the government about how we can make this attractive. We have the opportunity in terms of the transition, we need the support to adopt these technologies.”
He told how some engineering work had been done around CCS, and the business was looking at a £50 million to £75 million capital investment just to capture the CO2, before transportation was considered. “We haven’t figured out which horses to bet on, but we are lucky to have lots of horses,” he said, illustrating how these options aren’t there for competitors or even other plants in the group. “The location we have, by Immingham Docks, means we are fit for the future,” he added.
Being by the port remains as important as it did when the location was selected, with the site originally known as The Battery Works, due to it being built on a former heavy gun defence position, established to protect Hull and Immingham docks. The Humber’s largest port – then only 40 years old – together with ease of water-sourcing and waste ‘removal’ via the tidal estuary – not the case any longer – made it a prime location.
Having joined Tronox as European supply chain director two-and-a-half years ago, Mr Kossen describes his first year at Stallingborough as “amazing, very enjoyable”. “It is a great opportunity, the site is fantastic, with great people,” he said. “Stallingborough not only has a great legacy, but a great future. There is a uniqueness about the site from a competitive perspective that means this site can really be at the forefront.”
The plant’s design means it can run on lower grades of ore, which means lower costs. And that competitive advantage is seen as key when it comes to the challenge of balancing capital investment to clean up heavy industry.
Originally a sulphate plant, Stallingborough went on to add a chloride plant, with the former mothballed, then decommissioned, in the late Nineties. Using ilmenite mined in South Africa and Australia, it is subjected to a carefully controlled multi-layered chemical process to produce titanium dioxide, before being treated and milled to the required grade.
European managing director Machiel Keegel outlined why Tronox was better placed than many in its market, with locally the loss of Huntsman Tioxide in the same sector, Courtaulds and – imminently – pharmaceutical giant Novartis in many minds when they visualise what remains of the post-war industry boom along the bank. He said: “We are a very global company and that sets us apart from the competition, together with our vertical integration. Most don’t have their own mines, they have to go to the open market where prices go up and down, so it is tough operating if you are not vertically integrated. We took the decision in 2012 with the acquisition of Exxaro Mineral Sands, then in 2019 Tronox merged with Cristal, so over a period of 10 years we transformed from a regional operator to a vertically integrated global industry leader.”
It now has revenues of $3.5 billion, with earnings of $875 million, contributed to by nine pigment plants and six mines, operated by 6,500 employees serving 1,200 customers. Looking at the current climate, he said: “We have very similar challenges to many other companies in Europe and the UK. Short term we don’t know where we are. Activity is flat – it could go up, it could go down, our customers have the same issue. No-one is really buying or building inventory. We have a fixed cost base and we have to deal with that in doing our business.
“Longer term there is competition in China, we have seen the industry grow quite dramatically over the last 10 to 15 years, and the economy is slowing down there so more product is going to the rest of the world. We have seen supply in Europe and the UK. We have seen the Grimsby Huntsman site close, two French sites close and a Finnish site close. We believe we are in a much stronger position than those competitors were, but something we need to focus on is our competitive advantages.”
Used for both aesthetic and protective qualities when it comes to UV, titanium dioxide is described as “critical to the economy,” prolonging the lifecycle of almost everything it is applied to, with no real substitute for its inert qualities, allowing it to be used in food packaging and toothpaste, as well as the core markets of paint and pigment, plastics and paper.
Mr Keegel said labour was a challenge, with the number of people retiring outnumbering industry arrivals. It has triggered initiatives such as a nine day working fortnight and other employment incentives, as well as seeking and receiving external validation as a top employer. But it is the regulatory framework that is seen as key to the future.
“We are doing the right thing, leading on sustainability, but it comes at a cost,” Mr Keegel said of the UK and European focus on Net Zero. “Our struggle is how we pay for all the investments we make. We operate in a global marketplace and need to find competitive advantage with customers to make sure they value our products that are more carbon neutral than comparative products they can buy from outside the region. These are the key things we are facing.
“We are confident, looking into the future, that we have the right strategy, a strong balance sheet and have the right people to execute our strategy.”
Original artice – https://business-live.co.uk/all-about/yorkshire-humber