Historical Overview of the South African Chemical Industry : 1896 – 2002

Although SASOL started producing oil from coal in 1955 its origins can be traced back to 1895 when coal was first mined on both sides of the Vaal River near Vereeniging. The mining house, Anglovaal, was interested in the large deposits of low grade coal in this area and further south in the Free State. There was considerable interest in coal chemistry during the 1920s, and in 1927 a Government White Paper was published recommending the development of gasification and carbonisation processes.

In the early 1930s, Anglovaal and the British Burmah Company established the South African Torbanite Mining and Refining Company (SATMAR) to mine oil shales near Ermelo, to distil off and refine the oil, mainly for petrol. Anglovaal’s interests in oil-from-coal were extended when rights to the German Fischer-Tropsch process were acquired. In 1938 Hendrik van Eck, Anglovaal’s consulting chemical engineer, appointed Etienne Rousseau as research engineer at SATMAR to pursue this initiative. Franz Fischer visited South Africa in 1938 to assist in getting the venture off the ground. However, World War II intervened.

During the war Anglovaal maintained its interest in oil-from-coal and entered into negotiations with the M.W. Kellogg Corporation. There was considerable interest in the USA at that time with the US Government considering an oil-from-coal plant on the west coast. In 1945 Anglovaal applied to the SA Government for assistance to establish a plant based on the American Hydrocol process. After protracted negotiations a licence was finally issued in 1949. Because of devaluation and involvement with gold mining developments, Anglovaal needed assistance to raise the required £20 million. The World Bank expressed polite interest in the project but no money was forthcoming.

In the meantime negotiations were proceeding with the Kellog Corporation for licensing of its patents and assistance in the design and erection of a plant. However, Rousseau believed that a closer look needed to be taken at what the Germans had been doing with the Fischer-Tropsch process since the war. He obtained an offer from the Lurgi Gesellschaft, Oberhausen-Hollen, and Ruhrchemie Aktiengesellschaft, through an Arbeitsgemeinschaft (ARGE), of the designs for and the right to operate plants for the production of synthesis gas from coal and the Fischer-Tropsch process.


The upshot was the establishment, on 26 September 1950, of the Government-sponsored South African Coal, Oil and Gas Corporation Ltd., commonly called SASOL. This acronym arose from Rousseau’s initial suggestion that the company be called South African Synthetic Oil Limited. Rousseau, SASOL’s first employee, was appointed managing director, a position he held for 18 years. Both Kellog and ARGE processes were used; the former produced high proportions of medium octane petrol, LPG, and a range of chemicals; the latter produced mainly higher boiling waxes and oils, including diesel.

The plant, and its associated town, Sasolburg, were established in the Free State, just south of the Vaal River. All did not run smoothly as Rousseau recalled, “I must tell you honestly that there were times in SASOL’s early years, times when we had trouble, big trouble, when I felt that my main charge was to keep up the courage of our men. I certainly could not allow myself a moment’s despair”. Despite these setbacks, SASOL chemists and engineers managed not only to get the plant working satisfactorily but also to devote time to improving efficiency and to widening the product range. Feedstocks for the manufacture of synthetic rubber, fertilizers and secondary chemicals followed. Together with Total SA and the National Iranian Oil Company, a refinery (NATREF) was established in Sasolburg in 1960. Imported petroleum was refined and cracked to produce ethylene for plastics, and pipeline gas was supplied in increasing quantities to industry.

SASOL Two and Three

Prior to World War II, coal provided more than two-thirds of the world’s energy needs. By 1973 oil provided more than half of these needs, consumption was increasing and the first oil crisis threatened supplies from the Middle East. SASOL’s response to these developments was to commission a feasibility study on the establishment of a second oil-from-coal plant. At the end of 1974 plans for the erection of SASOL Two were announced at a cost of R2458 million. A site about 100 km to the east of Sasolburg, to be called Secunda, was chosen. Construction began in 1976 and was completed in 1980. At that time, South Africa imported much of its oil from Iran and the overthrow of the Shah precipitated a further oil crisis. The result was SASOL Three, constructed in 1982 adjacent to SASOL Two.

Since its inception SASOL has always placed a high priority on research and development. The SASOL One plant no longer produces fuels but instead a wide range of chemicals. Projects completed or in progress include the production of high purity ethanol, n-butanol and ethyl acetate. The establishment of a downstream chemical cluster production facility at Sasolburg, named Chemcity, using products from Sasol I as starting materials is a new innovation. The Fischer-Tropsch process has undergone continuous improvement, firstly through the Synthol process and more recently the Sasol Advanced Synthol (SAS) process. In one of several world-class engineering achievements, Sasol Technology and Sasol Synthetic Fuels commissioned seven new SAS reactors at Secunda in 1999. As a result at SASOL Two and Three, fuels are being produced with greater efficiency and increasing numbers of petrochemical feedstocks and speciality chemicals are being extracted from the product stream. SASOL’s Slurry Phase Distillate process for the production of high quality diesel from natural gas has aroused keen interest in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. SASOL processes are outlined in Figure 2. 1-octene has been added to the products produced by the alpha olefins plant.

Two recent acquisitions, that of German chemical firm Condea and Sasol’s increased stake in China’s Condea Naijing Chemicals to 100%, are evidence of the companies continued globilisation strategy.

The SASOL group of companies remains focused on sustainable growth through a strategy comprising five primary elements: business renewal and continuous improvement; joint ventures and alliances; innovation; focused investment in existing business and new value-added chemical projects.