By Cassandra Mascarenhas
Exploring new avenues of development in the Sri Lankan business sector, Laugfs Holdings Limited together with the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC) signed a landmark development agreement yesterday, sealing a joint venture to set up the country’s first plant to produce titanium oxide from mineral sand.
|Senior Minister for Scientific Affairs Tissa Vitarana (centre) looks as Laugfs Holdings Chairman W.K.H. Wegapitiya (right) shakes hands with National Science Foundation Chairman Prof. Sirimali Fernando, sealing the joint venture between the two entities as SLINTEC CEO Asela Gunawardena (left), and Laugfs Holdings Managing Director U.K. Thilak De Silva are also present – Pic by Upul Abayasekara
The new venture would allow value to be added to mineral sands, which have so far been exported from the country as a raw bulk commodity. The setting up of the plant will allow production of titanium dioxide from ilmenite obtained from mineral sands extracted from Pulmoddai.
“Venturing into an agreement of this nature with a semi-Government owned institution to set up a processing plant to add value to a product would bring many facets of opportunity not only to us but to Sri Lanka as a nation. At present, mineral sands are exported as a bulk commodity, but with this development agreement, these sands will be processed and re-imported back to Sri Lanka as a different product, which will be higher in value,” stated Laugfs Holdings Chairman W.K.H. Wegapitiya at the signing of the agreement.
Adding that this venture is a direct outcome of an initiative under the ‘Mahinda Chinthana,’ Wegapitiya noted reluctance on the part of both the State and private sector to spend on research and development.
He also hoped that this development would trigger similar initiatives in the north and east of the country.
“Most developed countries allocate a certain percentage of their GDP for research and development and we have not made enough effort to add more value to the products being exported from the country, which would in turn increase the foreign exchange coming into the country. Our objective by embarking on this venture is not purely commercial; we also want to create something beneficial for the country.”
At the onset, SLINTEC, a public-private partnership that commenced operations in 2008, instigated a project with the Ministry of Technology and Research and the National Science Foundation to produce titanium dioxide from ilmenite obtained from the mineral sands of Pulmoddai, a mineral which is one of the major sources of titanium. Sri Lanka is estimated to have 18 million metric tons of ilmenite reserves, which amounts to the ninth largest reserve in the world.
“The problems that assail us result from economic underdevelopment and lack of capital and what we are witnessing today should have been done a long time ago,” said the Senior Minister for Scientific Affairs Tissa Vitarana, who was also present at the occasion.
“Countries like South Korea have developed rapidly through high value additions on their exports by using advanced technology, ICT, biotechnology and other advancements. We have to look towards replicating South Korea’s model by including high technology inputs into our exports. We also need to move away from the unfortunate assumption that merely promoting ICT will make us a knowledge hub – there are many other industries that need to be developed to reach this goal.”
Titanium dioxide is used in many industries including paints and coatings, inks, paper, rubber, textile, polyester fibre, rayon, plastic, leather, etc. The current consumption of titanium oxide in Sri Lanka is around 5,000 metric tons and mineral sand exports amount to around 60,000 to 80,000 metric tons. Although there is an apparent export gain, the total extractable titanium dioxide from the exported mineral sands is around 25,000 to 40,000 metric tons making it a net loss in exports.
In this joint venture, SLINTEC has developed a process to produce titanium dioxide starting with the ilmenite extracted from Pulmoddai and the signing of this agreement has in turn initiated the commissioning of a pilot plant and in the future, a large-scale commercial plant. Through the venture, the entities will move into commercial production of titanium and in time, will set up a state-of-the-art processing plant to produce nano titanium.