CSIRO leads alumina research
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.’’