Mexichem believes UK expertise will help to shape the future of refrigerants. David Todd visited Runcorn to find out more.
Mexichem expects to make a significant contribution to the future direction of the global refrigerant market, thanks in no small measure to the depth of knowledge and experience it can call on in the UK.
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While other manufacturers have dominated recent headlines, Mexichem has kept a low profile. But Sarah Hughes, commercial director of the company’s Fluor Business Group, believes that is about to change. She has been with the business since it was part of ICI and points to a rich heritage at the company’s UK base in Runcorn. She said: “Some of the people here today were involved back then and, like me, have come through the transitions from CFCs, HCFCs, HFCs and now we are on to the fourth generation. So we have an extended background in the technology.’’
Value of knowledge
The outlook changed following Mexichem’s acquisition of INEOS Group’s fluor business in 2010. “The company recognises the value of the knowledge in the business,’’ said Hughes. “They see that we have some very good development work going on here and we now have the backing in terms of investment that we didn’t have before, which is great.
“All the R&D for the refrigerant business worldwide is done here in the UK and we are now in a position where we feel we can help shape the future of the business.
“If you look as F-Gas and the phasedown timings, by 2030 the average GWP needs to be around 300. Today we are probably at 1500, so we are focusing on the endgame and how low we can get these new products.
“The interims are great because they are replacing the very high GWP products but ultimately we need to get down to 300.’’
Mexichem recently announced that it would distribute Honeywell’s R448A in the UK and EU as Klea 448A to help bridge the gap for retail customers. Sarah said: “The retail sector is very important and this gives us a lower GWP offering when our focus is on developing ultra-low GWP products and long-term solutions.’’
Mexichem’s move to acquire the business was a natural step for the world’s biggest supplier of fluorspar. It accounts for more than 20% of global supply and produces 1.2m tonnes a year from the largest of its mines in Mexico.
China has more fluorspar deposits but with more locations and much smaller mining operations. In addition, the fluorspar from Mexico has considerably higher purity than the one from China.
The fluorspar then goes to the hydrogen fluoride (HF) facility close to the US Mexican border and then feeds into the world’s largest R134a plant in Louisiana, giving Mexichem a unique mine-to-market operation. The company also has an R134a plant in Japan, designed and set up by current Mexichem UK business director Dave Smith during the ICI days.
The F-Gas phasedown means the use of R134a in Europe will decline but Mexichem predicts a fairly stable lifetime over the next decade, with its use actually growing in some countries, including China. Around 40% of the refrigerant produced by Mexichem is for the automotive market.
Runcorn was the site of the world’s first R134a manufacturing plant, later converted to produce R125 for use in R410A. The company, along with many others, went through a difficult period with Chinese imports and struggled to make money on refrigerants at that point, leading to the closure of the R125 plant.
Refrigerants are no longer manufactured at Runcorn, with medical now forming the main part of the operation. The site takes the industrial R134a from the US and Japan and purifies it for use as a medical propellant in asthma inhalers. Mexichem has around 75% of the global market share on medical propellant (under the Zephex brand), with around 100 million people currently using inhalers powered by Zephex. Mexichem supplies the purified R134a to the big pharmaceutical companies, who then combine it with their drug formulation.
Mexichem is currently developing a new pharma business in the UK, looking at a lower-GWP replacement for R134a in medical propellants. “It’s a whole new business area,’’ says Hughes. “And very important because there are so many asthma sufferers around the world.
“It ties in with the value of our R&D strengths here because we are looking at a whole range of new concepts, including air conditioning for electric vehicles and of course the next generation industrial refrigerants.’’
Globally, Mexichem is a leading provider of products and solutions across multiple sectors of industry and commerce, from construction and infrastructure to agriculture, healthcare, transportation, telecommunications and energy.
It has expanded quickly over the last decade, mainly through acquisition but also through organic growth, with revenues up to around US$6bn in 2017. Fluor represents about a third in turnover of the overall business, with the global business having around 23,000 employees and close to 200 in the UK.
Route to market
Mexichem sells direct to OEMs and through distributors. Its well-established route toi market in the UK is via Harp, then Dean & Wood. This relationship dates back to the ICI era.