Foskor Zirconia – World’s Finest Zirconia

We learn how Foskor Zirconia changed its strategy to turn the company’s fortunes around.

Foskor Zirconia is a plant that was commissioned in 1991 to produce monoclinic and calcia-stabilised zirconia, with fumed silica as a by-product.

“In 1978, the Phosphate Development Corporation, known locally as FOSKOR, started producing baddeleyite, a naturally occurring zirconium dioxide, as a by-product of their Phosphate mining. Baddeleyite is a very scarce mineral, with only two deposits in the world – one in Russia and the other in South Africa,” Foskor Zirconia’s CEO, Albert Render tells us.

Foskor became a leading supplier of Zirconia into the international ceramic colours and refractory markets and continued to produce baddeleyite until Phalaborwa Mining closed their open pit in 2002, thereby terminating, for all time, the baddeleyite feed stock.

Having established a strong position in the global zirconia market, rather than close the plant, Foskor decided to realign the operation using Japanese Fusion technology and installed electric arc furnaces to produce zirconia from zircon sand

This operation, with three furnaces, has now been going for about 30 years, producing 4,800 tons of zirconia per annum. However, during those 30 years, the company has also had to adapt.

“By 2015,” Render points out, “the business was starting to struggle as the zirconia application technology had moved on and we needed to catch up. Zircon sand contains small amounts of uranium and thorium, limiting the markets we could serve with the processes we had in play. So, in 2017, we started a project to extract some of the uranium and thorium to produce a zirconia product with less than 500 parts per million of combined uranium and thorium. With a new product containing 450 parts per million, we have been able to open new markets, especially in the USA where they prohibit the use of materials exceeding 500 ppm, giving us a new lease of life.”

It took a long time to turn the business around because acceptance of any zirconia product in the market has a long vetting period due to the complex technological applications of zirconia.

A Triumphant Return

“In 2015 the company was in big trouble, but through a lot of hard work and a lot of innovation by the team we have managed to turn the business around,” Render tells us. “We had a breakthrough in 2019 when we won a contract to supply one of America’s biggest zirconium metal producers, putting us on a new path to growth.”

Today Foskor Zirconia’s product is utilised to produce zirconium metal tubes for nuclear power stations. However, our biggest market is in the manufacture of specialised refractory parts for the steel industry. Today, 100% of what the firm produces, is exported to Europe, India, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, America, and Brazil.

What makes Foskor Zirconia stand out is the quality of its product.

We are one of the very few producers in the world that produces calcium stabilised zirconia. There are different stabilisation materials used in zirconia from Yttria to calcium to magnesium, and we are one of the few in the world using calcium,” explains Render. “Outside of America, we’re the only producer able to producer zirconia with a lower than 500 parts per million uranium and thorium.”

Having navigated through the hazards of 2015, Foskor Zirconia then encountered the challenges of 2020 – namely, the Covid-19 pandemic.

2020 was a really difficult year and 2021 was also tough, but we turned the company around and into profitability,” Render recalls. “We ended the 2021/22 financial year in profit, although we have now been knocked back by the Ukrainian war because a number of our customers were selling their finished products into Ukraine. One of our biggest customers has cut their orders by 40%, so we are trying to replace market share. It is a never-ending effort. We also have logistics challenges with freight rates which are ridiculously high.”

Dealing with challenges like this is always a long-term task for Foskor Zirconia, thanks to the long vetting periods its products require to gain approval.

“We started a process almost two years ago to introduce our product into new markets, like Russia, which is now out of bounds, but also markets in India, and new companies producing Nuclear grade Zirconium Metal,” Render tells us. “We have recently been informed that initial tests from the test material we sent to a company in France, have led to it being approved for a larger-scale test.”

A New Generation

Render credits Foskor Zirconia’s improving performance to his “terrific” sales and marketing team and a distribution company that operates in America, India, and all of Europe to promote our products.

Render certainly knows the value of good staff. Finding them can be Foskor Zirconia’s most significant challenge.

The average age of our staff is high,” Render admits. “I am 71, my COO is 64, and my Technical Director is 64. So, we are constantly hiring younger people, bringing them up to speed. Recruiting in South Africa is very difficult, and we are struggling to replace retiring staff.”

Fortunately, Foskor Zirconia is already managing to source that new generation, thanks to a recruitment drive that has been in place since February.

“We have two universities actively seeking someone to take over and provide us with potential recruits to fulfil technical positions, such as our new analytical chemist. We have a forensic specialist who is very specialised, and they are currently helping us to replace him.”

As Foskor Zirconia’s next generation is trained and recruited, it is clear Render believes the company has a bright future ahead of it.

“We are in a very strong position to grow from here,” he says. “We have the right product in place, the right technologies in place, and the market is vast. The zirconia market is 70,000 tons a year of different qualities. Some are for chemical products, some are through melting and leaching, but the market is there, the technical ability in South Africa is there, and the raw materials are there. South Africa is the second-largest producer of zircon sand in the world. We are looking to grow in leaps and bounds over the next five to ten years.”

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