CSIRO leads alu­mina re­search

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Resources - Keith Orchi­son

THE CSIRO is pur­su­ing an in­no­va­tion pro­gram de­signed to im­prove Aus­tralia’s share of global alu­mina pro­duc­tion from 30 to 50 per cent by 2012.

The project is part of the pre­mier re­search or­gan­i­sa­tion’s Light Met­als Flag­ship, one of 10 key ar­eas for in­no­va­tion fo­cus es­tab­lished at the be­gin­ning of the decade. The light met­als pro­gram is un­der­tak­ing sci­en­tific ac­tiv­i­ties for the en­tire value chain from re­source de­vel­op­ment to metal pro­duc­tion and study­ing new mar­kets for man­u­fac­tured prod­ucts.

The ra­tio­nale for the fo­cus is global de­mand for ul­tra-light, ul­tra-strong, re­cy­clable met­als for lower emis­sion ve­hi­cles, en­ergy-sav­ing de­vices and more sus­tain­able prod­ucts.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion is no new­comer to alu­mina re­search, hav­ing more than 20 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in the area in which it has built strong links with alu­mina pro­duc­ers op­er­at­ing in Aus­tralia and over­seas. It is the largest alu­mina re­searcher in the world not embed­ded in one of the 20 ma­jor com­pa­nies that make up the global in­dus­try.

Four of the largest global pro­duc­ers of alu­mina and alu­minium — Rio Tinto Alu­minium, Al­can, BHP Bil­li­ton and Al­coa — have elected to es­tab­lish their alu­mina re­search and de­vel­op­ment arms in Aus­tralia in part to be able to ex­ploit prox­im­ity to the CSIRO’s re­search ca­pa­bil­ity.

CSIRO’s re­search pro­gram forms part of an Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment

light met­als ac­tion agenda’’ for alu­minium, mag­ne­sium and ti­ta­nium to bol­ster an in­dus­try sec­tor that gen­er­ates around $15 bil­lion worth of an­nual wealth for the coun­try, with ex­ports of more than $10 bil­lion. The Gov­ern­ment sees Aus­tralian-based pro­duc­ers and man­u­fac­tur­ers gain­ing a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage by achiev­ing tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs be­fore the rest of the world.

The goal of the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment’s light met­als agenda is to dou­ble the rev­enue from the sec­tor’s pro­duc­tion to $20 bil­lion a year while in­creas­ing en­ergy ef­fi­ciency by 30 per cent, cut­ting green­house emis­sions by 30 per cent and low­er­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing costs by 50 per cent.

The in­cen­tive for suc­cess is strong. Low­er­ing en­ergy costs by 10 per cent would save Aus­tralian smelters some $76 mil­lion a year in elec­tric­ity costs, ac­cord­ing to an eval­u­a­tion of the flag­ship pro­gram un­der­taken by con­sul­tants ACIL Tas­man. The sav­ings would be greater if Aus­tralia in­tro­duces a car­bon pric­ing regime such as emis­sions trad­ing as part of its global warm­ing poli­cies.

The value added ex­tends fur­ther in to the na­tional econ­omy, with CSIRO es­ti­mat­ing that achiev­ing its alu­minium and mag­ne­sium goals will bol­ster the au­to­mo­tive and con­sumer prod­uct sec­tors by $300 mil­lion a year and con­trib­ute an ad­di­tional $1 bil­lion to GDP by 2020.

Re­mov­ing alu­mina from baux­ite and then turn­ing it into alu­minium is costly and the CSIRO pro­gram is tar­geted on im­prov­ing process op­er­a­tions and re­duc­ing the en­ergy re­quired.

One of its projects in­volves work­ing with the alu­minium in­dus­try to in­ves­ti­gate the use of ionic liq­uids in re­duc­ing the very high tem­per­a­tures needed for smelt­ing.

The project’s re­search leader, Theo Rodopolous, says the key value of ionic liq­uids lies in their low melt­ing point. Alu­minium is cur­rently pro­duced through elec­tro-de­po­si­tion, where alu­mina is dis­solved in a molten cry­o­lite bath at 1000C and an elec­tric cur­rent is ap­plied to sep­a­rate the metal from oxy­gen. Ionic liq­uids melt be­low 100C. If they can be used in­stead of molten cry­o­lite, they could dra­mat­i­cally re­duce a smelter’s en­ergy needs.’’

Rio Tinto’s tech­nol­ogy sup­port gen­eral man­ager Ray Shaw says the re­search is a novel approach be­ing mon­i­tored closely by his com­pany.

While re­search is still in its early days, ionic liq­uids could re­duce the elec­tric­ity used in alu­minium pro­duc­tion by 20 to 30 per cent.’’

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