- Aluminium production is achieved by two steps: First, alumina is obtained by refining bauxite in the Bayer process (termed alumina refining). The next step uses molten cryolite which dissolves alumina and then it is electrolytically reduced to aluminium (termed aluminium smelting).
- In 2011, European countries produced 3.2 million tonnes of bauxite out of the 15.5 million tonnes bauxite needed for their alumina production. From a total aluminium metal supply of 13.2 million tonnes in 2011, 35% is produced by European primary smelters, 30% is net-imported and 34% is recycled by European refiners and remelters. Finally, the metal is processed into 4.5 million tonnes rolled products, 3.0 million tonnes extruded products, 3.2 million tonnes of castings, and another 1.2 million tonnes is produced in the form of wire, slugs, powder and some other applications. The aluminium industry in Europe directly employs around 255,000 persons [European Aluminium Association].
- In spite of increasing global demand for aluminium, since 2003 ten primary aluminium smelters have closed in the EU, while none have opened or are planned to open. Therefore, a new Commission study looks at the situation in the aluminium sector and how its competitiveness is affected by regulatory costs. European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani, Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship, said: “Restoring the aluminium industry to competitiveness is an urgent issue. We need to carefully consider the effects of all relevant EU policies on this sector” [EC – MEMO/13/954 06/11/2013]. European competitiveness in this sector is imperative to both stabilise and reduce EU dependency on imports, promote production and protect jobs.
- Ireland houses one of Europe’s largest alumina refineries in Co. Limerick called Aughinish Alumina with an annual production capacity of 1,990,000 tonnes of alumina and employment of approx. 450 people.
- In order to keep the sector competitive, challenges and opportunities exist. One such aspect is that of management of process by-products which is heavily regulated regarding legislation and has as significant cost associations.
- Alumina processing in particular creates a process by-product called bauxite residue which is disposed in an engineered facililty. As such, the global inventory of bauxite residue stored currently in landbased impoundments is estimated to be over 2.7 billion tonnes, with an annual growth rate of approximately 120 million tonnes (Klauber et al., 2011).
- These challenges represent an opportunity to increase the competitiveness of the aluminium sector in Ireland and Europe and to develop Irish capacity to be at the forefront of resource efficient technologies. The Al-Source project proposes to investigate two potential parallel technologies for: a) the recovery of precious metal elements from bauxite residue (precious metal recovery) and b) the use of bauxite residue as an adsorbent and sequester for phosphorus from waste water (phosphorus recovery).