Making Acid in the Heart of Africa

Hatch uses digital technology to go from feasibility studies to finished construction in 2 years.

There’s not much good news coming out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country in the heart of Africa that seems engulfed by civil war, conflict and other violence. Until we are invited to a showcase of international infrastructure projects in Singapore (Bentley’s Year in Infrastructure 2019, YII2019) and find out about a significant project in the remote province of Katanga, an area as well known for its rich reserves of copper and cobalt as the violence surrounding them. When the plant is at full capacity, the mines should be awash in sulfuric acid.

The $245 million project had its design and construction managed by Hatch Ltd., a global construction firm headquartered in Mississauga, Ontario. The finished plant will be capable of making all the sulfuric acid the copper mines need to leach copper oxide minerals. The export of copper accounts for 50 percent of all of DRC’s exports. The plant will have 77 km of piping and has been designed largely with Bentley’s software, which the company credits for taking months off the construction process. In all, Hatch was able to go from feasibility studies to finished plant in under two years.

The project includes a 1,400-ton-per-day manufacturing facility and a 20 MW electrical waste heat power generation system with a thermal cooling tower. Before the plant was built, sulfuric acid had to be trucked to the mines—a considerable challenge in this remote area. DRC’s capital, Kinshasa, is 38 hours on gravel roads to the West and Goma is 29 hours to the North.

If your conception of central Africa is derived from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, it will surprise you to learn that the acid making plant was created 100 percent digitally. Hatch used Bentley’s STAAD to model and analyze the steel structure. A complete, intelligent digital twin of the entire plant was created using OpenPlant to manage and share information among Hatch offices in Canada, South Africa, India, Australia, and the DRC. The entire process was paperless. The Canadian company used iPads in the field (jungle?) to see the live model in 3D. “Not a single drawing was plotted,” said the Hatch speaker.

We wondered how good of a connection you could have in the heart of Africa.

“Surprisingly good,” said the speaker. “The 4G connection was quite good all over.”

“We saved 10 percent to 15 percent in purchasing costs,” he added. ProjectWise was used to manage and share data in an open, connected data environment (CDE), as well as streamline digital workflows to cut six weeks from the delivery schedule. So impressed were judges at YII2019 that the Hatch sulfuric acid plant won the Manufacturing category, beating out a blast furnace in India and a steel production plant in China.