From its beginnings in 1895, the Zuid Afrikaansche Fabrieken voor Ontplofbare Stoffen Beperk was referred to as 'The Dynamite Company'. Today, this has more of a figurative rather than literal meaning - we still have a ‘dynamite factory', but it uses modern technology and strives to make blasting safer.
1886 – 1896: The Witwatersrand gold rush
Gold discovered - At the end of the nineteenth century George Harrison discovered gold on the Witwatersrand reef and with that the largest market for dynamite exploded into existence. The Witwatersrand gold rush was the catalyst that fuelled industrial awakening in South Africa.
SA's President initiates first explosives factory - The great demand for explosives prompted the then President of the South African Republic – Paul Kruger – to initiate the establishment of the ‘Zuid Afrikaansche Fabrieken voor Ontplofbare Stoffen Beperk' at Modderfontein.
Construction of explosives factory commences - Dr Franz Hoenig, an Austrian seconded from the Nobel explosives factory in Pressburg, Hungary, was the first manager and was in charge of construction, which started in 1895 and took about a year to complete.
Factory opens - On 25th April 1896 President Paul Kruger officially opened the factory on one of his rare visits to the Rand.
First cartridge explosive - The first cartridge explosives were produced on 29th June 1896 with full scale production commencing in November of that year. At that time, cartridges were paper-wrapped and bulk explosives were not yet available.
Business was booming at the Modderfontein factory, driven by the relentless pace of progress in mining and industry, particularly the gold mining industry.
1907 - 1924 - First World War and Beyond
By this time, Modderfontein factory was producing around 22 000 cases of explosives per month (i.e. 264 000 per annum).
Two factories unite - After World War I, the Modderfontein factory and Kynoch's Umbogintwini factory amalgamated. Explosives production was centred at Modderfontein and the Umbogintwini factory went over to making fertilisers - at this point, Cape Explosives Works was the only rival to Modderfontein.
1924 - 1938: The birth of an industrial giant: African Explosives & Industries Limited
African Explosives & Industries Limited formed - The formation of African Explosives and Industries Limited in 1924 breathed new life into Modderfontein factory with new developments commencing on a scale that merited the title of “the biggest commercial explosives factory in the world”.
Sir Ernest Oppenheimer is appointed chairman - Sir Ernest Oppenheimer is appointed chairman of African Explosives and Industries Limited.
Ammonia synthesis plant - The history of AECI and of Modderfontein factory is synonymous with the history of industry in South Africa. As a generator of wealth with its products and as a creator of supporting industries, its value was incalculable.
The board of directors decided to erect an ammonia synthesis plant at Modderfontein in this year. Applying Fritz Haber's process which used coke as a feedstock and iron as a catalyst, Modderfontein scored two firsts: this was arguably the greatest industrial development of the 20th century in South Africa and Modderfontein became the world leader in explosives and chemical technology.
Production at No 1 Ammonia Plant began in 1932 and, as a result of producing ammonium nitrate, research started into the substitution of ammonium nitrate for nitroglycerin in explosives manufacture.
Further research and development of a vast range of chemicals and explosives was facilitated by the ready availability of ammonia and nitric acid. The use of ammonium nitrate as a partial substitute for sodium nitrate in nitroglycerin explosives led to the introduction of ammon dynamite and ammon gelignite, thus paving the way for a new generation of ammonium nitrate-based explosives.
African Explosives and Industries Limited remained an innovative company and pioneered the introduction of pension schemes, sickness benefits, medical care, trade unions, collective bargaining and many other facets of modern labour practice.
South Africa went off the gold standard in 1932.
Ammon gelignite takes off - Three thousand cases of ammon gelignite, the new ammonium nitrate explosive, were put to the test. Within five years, ammon gelignites would completely replace straight gelignites.
1939 - 1944 - The Second World War & Post War
South Africa's participation in World War II led to diversification into the manufacture of a range of chemicals, many of which were long overdue, and which were aimed at improving the general standard of life in South Africa. The range, which included aluminium sulphate, zinc chloride, zinc ammonium chloride, sodium thiosulphate, silver nitrate and special curing saltpetre, opened the portals of scientific progress and paved the way for an improved quality of life for all.
Name change to African Explosives & Chemical Industries - After World War II, research and development facilities were consolidated and expanded at Pinelands in Modderfontein, whilst international liaison with ICI Explosives Research and Development centres intensified.
In 1944, the company name was changed to African Explosives & Chemical Industries Limited to reflect the increasing importance of its chemical manufacturing activities.
AEL in the 1950s
Health committee- Unlike a conventional town with a municipality, Modderfontein consisted of a factory surrounded by houses. As a result a steering committee was established to oversee infrastructure, health, development and maintenance of the area and Modderfontein was proclaimed a “Health Committee”.
No 2 Ammonia Plant - Against a background of burgeoning activity in mining and quarrying, African Explosives & Chemical Industries Limited solidified its reputation as a pioneer of explosives and explosives accessories.
The No 2 Ammonia Plant erected in 1954 heralded the production of methanol and formaldehyde.
Igniter cord introduced - The company introduced the capability for sequential delay timing for capped fuse systems in narrow reef mines by introducing igniter cord, which went into production at Modderfontein in 1957 and replaced 'chesa sticks', which had been in use for lighting fuses for 70 years, but which limited the number of shots that could be fired.
Harry Oppenheimer appointed chairman - Harry Oppenheimer succeeded his father as chairman.
Freflo and Dynagel developed- The ever-increasing range of mining activities in South Africa facilitated some pioneering work on explosives and explosives accessories for the gold, diamond, platinum, iron ore, coal, copper, asbestos and quarrying industries.
In 1959, “Freflo”, a loose explosive for pouring into vertical drillholes, was developed. Dynagel®, a low nitroglycerin content, water-resistant explosive was also introduced. Both products attracted world attention and Dynagel® in particular was a great success with the mines.
AEL in the 1960s
First urea plant- The first urea plant in Africa was opened at Modderfontein, to supply the agricultural industry.
Black powder & BGP safety fuse- The production of black powder and BGP safety fuse commenced at Modderfontein. At its peak, the plant produced 300 million metres of safety fuse per year.
First pentolite boosters- Somerset West factory produces the first pentolite boosters.
Sales exceed R100 million- Annual group sales exceed R100 million.
ANFO introduced - The 1960s saw the introduction of porous prill ammonium nitrate that facilitated the production of ammonium nitrate fuel oil (ANFO), a new blasting agent. In this year, AE&CI built a plant at Modderfontein to permit full scale production of ANFO. The branding of ANFO as Anfex®, an AE&CI Limited trademark, developed into a generic term for ANFO throughout the mining industry and is still today the most commonly used term for ANFO.
AE&CI Limited lists on the JSE - AE&CI Limited listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
No 3 Ammonia Plant commissioned - A factory was built at Modderfontein for the production of PETN and detonating cord.
The No 3 Ammonia Plant was commissioned at Umbogintwini along with an ancillary urea plant. Management had decided to use crude oil in the production process which led to closure of the factory in the 1980s.
Slurry explosives developed - The development of a range of slurry explosives and on-site mixing techniques ushered in a new era in explosives technology. These innovations would prove to be especially important to the open cast mining sector. At this time, slurried explosives were produced in pilot quantities mainly for research and development purposes.
AEL in the 1970s
Fuse heads manufactured - Modderfontein started manufacturing fuse heads for electrical detonators to replace imported products, thus making South Africa completely independent of imported components for blasting accessories.
AE&CI abbreviation - The company name was abbreviated to AE&CI Limited in order to facilitate financial investment from overseas.
No 4 Ammonia Plant completed - In this year, a massive new nitrogen complex known as No 4 Ammonia Plant was built. It used coal as a feedstock and produced 1 000 tonnes of ammonia a day and included downstream plants for the conversion of ammonia to nitric acid, ammonium nitrate, urea, liquid carbon dioxide and methanol – all essential components in the manufacture of a vast range of products such as fertilisers, paints, plastics and obviously, explosives.
Far more than simply an explosives company, AE&CI Limited became a key chemicals supplier to South African industry and a powerful role-player in the everyday life of the nation.
Name change to AECI Limited - The company name was changed to AECI Limited, to follow modern trends.
First emulsion patent - AECI Limited filed its first emulsion explosives patent.
AEL in the 1980s
First shock tube system - An AECI scientist started with research and development into a narrow reef assembly (NRA) shock tube system that would give the ability to achieve discrete changes in rapid, precise, sequential firing of shock tube systems in narrow reef panels.
Wet spun safety fuse - Also at this time, AECI's research into the development of wet spun safety fuse was extended to a pilot plant.
Mankwe opens- The first new commercial explosives factory since 1908 was opened at Mankwe, near Rustenburg, with production of 100 million capped fuses per annum and a capacity of 80 000 tonnes of Anfex® per annum. The plant was hailed as a catalyst for new jobs and new opportunities in that district.
Powergel introduced- Powergel® bulk emulsion explosives were introduced to the surface mining industry and field trials of cartridged Powergel® emulsion explosives began. Nonel® non-electrical initiating systems were introduced.
Safety fuse produced at Mankwe - A new plant at Mankwe factory came on stream for the manufacture of safety fuse.
No 3 Ammonia Plant closes - No 3 Ammonia Plant in Umbogintwini which had been operational since 1967 and which used crude oil in the production process, was mothballed. This was as a result of the OPEC oil crisis and ongoing problems in the Middle East which caused production costs to spiral out of control.
Wet spun safety fuse innovation - Flowing from research that had commenced in 1980, AECI developed and in 1985 industrialised, a process for manufacturing safety fuse by a wet process.
AECI's development of wet spun safety fuse was the most significant change in safety fuse in the 20th century. It was also the most significant breakthrough in safety fuse technology since Bickford's original patent revolutionised blasting practice in 1841.
The safety, speed and efficiency of manufacturing operations was revolutionised as well as the quality and predictability of the world-leading fuse products that were the final outcome.
This technology is used to make millions of kilometres of Durafuse® and Stopefuse® annually, in South Africa.
New plants for Powergel & Energex- At Modderfontein, a new plant to manufacture 700 000 cases of packaged Powergel® came online and Energex® watergel explosives were manufactured at a pilot plant.
Nitroglycerin phased out- The phasing out of nitroglycerin explosives manufacture at Somerset West factory commenced.
Narrow reef assembly innovation- After six years of research and development, AECI introduced a new invention - the narrow reef assembly (NRA) shock tube system that would give the ability to achieve discrete changes in rapid, precise, sequential firing of shock tube systems in narrow reef panels.
This is now marketed by initiating systems companies around the world, and today by AEL as Handimaster®, Stopemaster® and Reefmaster® products in both underground and surface mining applications.
Bethal operations opened - The new R25 million explosives factory and distribution centre at Bethal came online with a production capacity of 600 000 cases of Energex® a year. It is also tasked with the distribution of explosives and accessories.
Klerksdorp operations opens - The Klerksdorp factory and distribution centre began operations.
The Dynamite Company Museum opens- The Dynamite Company Museum was officially opened by former AECI Chairman Harry Oppenheimer.
Emulsion chemical gassing sensitisation innovation - AECI introduced emulsion chemical gassing sensitisation technology to the South African explosives industry. This initiative led to enormous savings for the local mining industry by its inexpensive replacement of more costly mechanical sensitising agents and is still used for sensitising all bulk explosives today.
Production of nitroglycerin explosives ceased at Somerset West factory in the same year.
AEL in the 1990s
Asset swap with ICI - Through an asset swap, ICI exchanged 25% of its share in AECI Limited for 51% of the newly-formed AECI Explosives Limited.
Through its shareholding in AECI Explosives Limited, ICI Explosives enhanced its position as the world's largest explosives manufacturer. Modern international benchmarks in manufacturing and technology were instilled in AECI Explosives Limited and its position as a world class supplier was boosted by the shared technology and processes brought in by ICI Explosives.
Subsequent bids for the business were made by Orica (created from the divestment of ICI Explosives' interests world-wide and Australian chemical interests) and Dyno Nobel of Norway.
However, these bids were not seen to meet shareholder expectations of AECI Explosives Limited's value and were rejected by AECI's shareholders.
This allowed AECI Explosives Limited to be an independent, Africa-based explosives manufacturer.
End of apartheid and first democratic elections in South Africa - First democratic elections in South Africa. Market in Africa opened up.
Nitroglycerin plant closes - AECI was in the process of phasing out nitroglycerin production as it was a very unstable substance and had caused a number of accidents worldwide, through the years. In September 1994, a fatal accident occurred at Modderfontein. After the accident, AECI immediately closed this nitroglycerin plant. Powergel emulsion, which was already being manufactured, replaced nitroglycerin.
Manufacturing centralised - A corporate decision had been taken to centralise the manufacturing hub once again and as a result Bethal, Zomerveld and Mankwe manufacturing plants were closed. However, on occasion the Mankwe factory is still used to produce safety fuse and capped fuse.
Closure of Somerset West explosives factory in line with the centralisation policy.
Centenary celebration - 100 years of explosives manufacturing at Modderfontein.
AECI total ownership - In January 1998, AECI exercised its pre-emptive option to repurchase ICI's 51% share in AECI Explosives Limited thereby regaining 100% ownership.
The company celebrated achieving 10 million reportable accident-free hours.
The company name changed from AECI Explosives Limited to African Explosives Limited (AEL).
AEL in the 2000s
No 4 Ammonia Plant closes - A combination of factors led to the closure of No 4 Ammonia Plant (operational since 1974). These included the fall in the price of ammonia on world markets, high maintenance costs due to the age of the plant and the fact that the technology employed was now outdated.
Sasol agreement- AEL signed an ammonia supply agreement with Sasol which is still in place today.
Electronic detonators- AEL achieved the first 1 500 electronic detonator single blast (at Damang Gold Mine in Ghana) using the AEL-developed programmable Smartdet® system.
AEL has since become the world's leading distributor of precision timing programmable electronic detonators.
DetNet joint venture- AECI and Dyno Nobel (Norway) entered into a joint venture with DetNet – 'Changing the Way the World Mines' with electronic detonators.
AEL's head office at The Platform - AEL head office moved to The Platform in Longmeadow Business Estate, a new head office building adjacent to Modderfontein.
The move symbolised a culture shift to our new business platform – a centre of connection and place of pride where AEL staff from anywhere in the world can be energised. It also symbolised relentless focus on action, innovation and the breeding ground of an energetic, efficient and vibrant workforce, totally dedicated to its customers.
AEL celebrates our dedication to both the people and the country by officially becoming Proudly South African™.
BEE company with Tiso Group - In July AEL became a BEE company - embracing diversity in the true spirit of democracy, AEL, through the AECI Group, became the first black economically empowered supplier of explosives, initiating systems, blasting services and solutions in South Africa.
The empowerment transaction involved the acquisition of a 25.1% interest in AEL by the Tiso Group. The Tiso Group is a majority black-owned and managed natural resources, financial services and industrial services organisation.
Reducing its footprint - One of our greatest challenges will be the problem posed by operating a huge industrial complex surrounded by densely populated residential areas - a far cry from the factory's establishment 20 kilometres from the fledgling city of Johannesburg.
A key focus for the future is the reduction of our footprint and the automation of production processes. AEL remains Africa's largest manufacturer of explosives and initiating systems and is focussed on maintaining its African market whilst pursuing new opportunities in developing countries beyond Africa.
Highest mine in Africa - The first trial blast at Letseng Diamond Mine, the highest mine in Africa with the coldest period where temperatures drop as low as -27 °C was done in March 2005.
ISAP commences- AEL embarked on the Initiating Systems Automation Project (ISAP) in 2006 and has designed, built and commissioned a high speed automated assembly line to deliver high volumes of shock tube product within a significantly reduced cycle time relative to existing manual processes.
AEL invests in Indonesia - 2007 saw AEL's first international product assembly initiative and first capital investment outside Africa in Indonesia. AEL reached an agreement with an Indonesian explosives company, PT Dahana to set up an operation to assemble shock tube. Indonesia has an approximate market demand of 10 million shock tube units per year and growing demand from surrounding countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia the Philippines and Thailand. The feasibility study, the plant design and contractual documents were signed and finalised in 2007. AEL took this phenomenal first step in its three year international growth initiative to increase its business exponentially in a brave, new frontier.
Official launch of AEL Mobile Training Unit - AEL launched its mobile training unit at Modderfontein as part of the solution to quality training in the application of shock tube products and commitment to ensuring a smooth transition for customers from old to new technology. A first of its kind in the world, the centre trains supervisory and senior mine personnel in a simulated environment while underground conversions take place and no disruption to normal mining activities. A marked achievement for AEL ensuring the new era of mining is as smooth and as painless as possible for customers.
Waste Oil Innovation in Emulsion Range - 2007 phased in a new range of bulk emulsion products for surface application. The first emulsion in the new range called Synergy was introduced in April. The new product range was more energetic, effective and efficient in breaking rock. One of the products of note was the Synergy 400 which innovatively used waste oil acting as the fuel in the explosive process instead of virgin oil. The environmental problem of mine's disposing of the huge amounts of used oil from their mine vehicles was solved and the cost saving of having to buy virgin oil for the explosive process was passed onto customers. AEL's R&D team received recognition for the special contribution to innovation and research and technology.
World first with spray drying innovation - In February 2008 AEL's R&D team pioneered and patented the world's first commercial pyrotechnic spray drying plant, which will eventually provide all the delay powders that the company needs for its new automated assembly plant. The spray drying process produces a uniform delay powder with enhanced flow properties from safe water based slurry feedstock. The unique innovation has been used in the market with extremely good results. The total number of detonators using the spray drying method is 6.18 million, with a failure rate of less than one in a million. The first plant arrived from Denmark late 2007 with the first product being produced in February 2008.
AEL Zambia makes history - AEL Zambia signed the biggest explosives supply contract in more than a 100 year history of the company. The contract was for the supply of explosives to the Lumwana copper mine to produce and deliver the required quantities of bulk emulsion, a record breaking deal worth US$280 million over a period of ten years.
AEL establishes presence in North Africa - AEL successfully established a presence in North Africa and installed its emulsion plant at Sukari Gold Project in Egypt and commenced blasting operations at the mine.
First Automated Shock Tube Blast - In June 2009, AEL delivered its first fully automated shock tube blast at Anglo Platinum's Brakspruit Mine in the North West province in South Africa, followed by successful field trials of 150 000 units.
AEL reduces ammonium emissions - AEL commissioned its modified Ammonium Nitrate Solution (ANS) plant to reduce ammonium emissions from 100 tons per month to 10 kilograms per year, benefitting the environment and residents from surrounding communities in Modderfontein, South Africa.
New plant at Gold Fields, Ghana - African Explosives (Ghana) Limited (AEGL) commissioned its new bulk emulsion plant at Gold Fields' Tarkwa operation in Ghana, following the renewal of the explosives supply agreement between the two companies for a further period of 5 years.
Major contracts in Indonesia - PT AEL Indonesia was awarded its first two major contracts in this region for the supply of explosives and services by two of the leading coal mining contractors, PT Bukit Makmur (BUMA) at Gunungbayan Coal Mine and PT Thiess Contractors Indonesia (TCI) at Melak Coal Mine.
Early warning hot hole device - AEL developed and launched an early warning device which will assist in detecting and reducing the safety risks posed by hot holes in coal surface mining.
AEL awarded KPC Contract - In October, AEL Indonesia was awarded 50% of the contract from PT Kaltim Prima Coal (KPC), one of the world's largest coal mines for the supply of explosives and services to PAMA & Thiess operation at Sangatta and Dama Henwa operation at Bengalon.
New E-20T MMU launched - In October, AEL unveiled its largest ever, new generation E-20T Mobile Manufacturing Units (MMU) to customers and media at an event at the group's head office in Modderfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa.
New brand strategy and corporate identity- AEL launches its new logo, brand strategy and corporate identity at Indaba in February. At the same time, AEL launches its new global website.
AEL Opens Offices in Chile - AEL opens its first South American operation and establishes offices in Santiago, Chile.
Ground-breaking innovations: PCU 010 pump, Shock Tube Uni-Delay LP Vivid, Rhino Shock Tube Connector and Powercord 8 Premium.
More trail-blazing innovations: Blast Initiation Timer (BIT), GeoShot (Electronic Delay Detonator), CE4 Tagger and Hot Hole Monitor, Vertical Drop System.
Latest innovations: InstaStem- non-detonating rock-breaking cartridge.