by Christina Smith
Tucked away in one of the avenues in Campden Park is Caribbean Investments Limited, a plant which produces the critical element needed to keep the local medical, construction and diving sector alive- Oxygen.
Though some Vincentians may not know of its existence, the factory, headed by chief engineer and managing director, Julius Williams, is the nation’s sole producer of oxygen.
Williams has been in the business of oxygen production for about 10 years, and this is perhaps why he describes the three stage process as “easy”, despite the complicated scientific procedures behind it.
SEARCHLIGHT was granted exclusive access to the plant in Campden Park where Williams walked the team through the oxygen making and bottling process.
“We extract the oxygen from the air, and it takes a lot of power to do that with the compressor. First stage is taking the air in, and filtering it. Air has two major components, nitrogen which is about 78 per cent, and oxygen which is close to 21 per cent.
What the plant does is take out the nitrogen, which is the bigger component, and leave the oxygen. Second stage is to take out the nitrogen. Third stage is to get the oxygen that is left back into the cylinders for medical or welding purposes”.
Williams explained that the team has set the quality standards for oxygen purity at 95 percent.
“The Food and Drug Administration [FDA] approves between 85 percent and 95 percent for medical purposes, but we don’t go past 94 per cent because the welders would complain, they would start seeing smudging and they wouldn’t get a clean cut,” Williams explained.
The plant, although not massive, is powerful, and has the capacity to produce up to 100 cylinders of oxygen daily.
Williams said that the reason behind setting up the plant was to get around the high costs of moving bottles out of SVG to Trinidad and Barbados to be filled and returned.
He and his team were tried and tested during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the eruptions of La Soufriere Volcano. They had to grapple with poor air quality due to the debris emitted from the volcano, which required them to increase maintenance and cleaning of the plant equipment.
At the same time, a spike in positive COVID-19 cases meant that the demand by the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital (MCMH) for oxygen jumped from 60 bottles a week to 60 per day in order to accommodate patients who were experiencing respiratory complications.
“We had to order a new plant during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep up with the standard requirements. There were times when we were on the brink, and welders had to wait so that we could maintain oxygen for the hospital,” William pointed out.
“ We had to give the hospital priority, so sometimes for a week or two, welders couldn’t get any oxygen. Before, Trinidad and Barbados had the supply.
“During COVID-19 these ports closed down totally so if we weren’t manufacturing oxygen here in St. Vincent a lot more people would have died. Oxygen was like the medicine,” Williams said.
He disclosed that at the time, plans were underway to commence exports to Saint Lucia, however these plans had to be abandoned in order to cope with the demand for oxygen at the MCMH.
The company also experienced setbacks with the plant in St Kitts and Nevis as the pandemic prevented the team from flying out to conduct quarterly maintenance and checks.
“The St Kitts plant deteriorated- some components beyond repair, so we had to order a plant and a half.”
Now, with the pandemic tapering off and the SVG plant in good production pace, Williams’ focus is on setting up shop in Tortola. He added that the goal is to set up a plant in all the islands.
He emphasized the importance of conducting scheduled maintenance if the plant is to produce a high quality product.
“In order to maintain a quality product you have to do a lot of maintenance, filters to change, and have a standard maintenance programme and stick to it. Some components would give you 400 hours before changing, and some would give you 4,000. That is why we have so many plants so we can shut down a plant and do a complete overhaul, or we can run them simultaneously, get the job done fast, and have three to four days to do maintenance on both plants,” Williams explained.
In an environment where machinery malfunctions can spell disaster, Williams explained that the technology monitoring the plant will alert him in real-time as to any concerns with the equipment, and the team is trained to ensure that bottles are checked for defects and stored properly.