NEW YORK Is Orbite
Aluminae Inc. for real?
On the surface, the multipronged
storyline of the can-do, clean-technology company sounds too
good to be true. Dig a little deeper, and the bold claims and
big promises that have become a trademark of the Montreal-based
companys top management begin to look less like mad
science and marketing bluster and a lot more plausible.
Orbite has got what it describes
as a viable, eco-friendly technology to turn mega-mountains of
hazardous red mud generated by industrial alumina production
using the Bayer process into cold cash by recovering the full
commercial value of the materials constituent products
and the land its sitting on.
On top of that, the company has
a potline full of patents or pending protection on 14 families
of intellectual properties covering various aspects of its
versatile, proprietary hydrochloric acid-based process. Orbite
claims the technology produces alumina and other high-value
productsincluding rare earthsusing aluminous clay,
bauxite, kaolin, red mud and fly ash at among the lowest costs
in the industry.
And its taken tangible
steps to prove it. In mid-December, the company announced it
had successfully produced its first tonne of high-purity
alumina (HPA) as part of the initial commissioning and testing
activities at its commercial-scale HPA production plant in
Cap-Chat, Quebec (
amm.com, Dec. 18).
Then, only days ago in an
announcement issued jointly with Paris-based Veolia
Environmental Services, Orbite said that the two companies had
signed an exclusive worldwide collaborative agreement for the
treatment and recycling of red mud (
amm.com, Feb. 5).
"We had been approached by a few
groups but this one was extremely well positioned," Richard
Boudreault, president and chief executive officer of Orbite,
told AMM in an interview. "Veolia is a very large
firm, they are international, they are extremely well
capitalized andif Im not mistakenthey have
been approached previously by many in industry and government
to treat red mud but didnt have a solution."
Other factors favoring the
tie-up range from the relationships Veolia had already
established with environmental regulators around the world to
its ability "to get things done," Boudreault said.
"They are strong operators. We
plan to build 50 or 100 of these plants eventually, so
thats key. They can also protect our intellectual
property in many different countries, and that is critical to
us," he said. "The agreement we signed is not to do some trials
somewhere here or there but it is to build and operate the
first plant. Naturally, (Veolia) are going to be looking for a
situation where strong demand commands a high price for land,
because you are recovering land." Other prerequisites include a
significant accumulation of red mud, as well as an interest in,
and strong regulations requiring, treatment of the hazardous
"As incredible as it may seem,
China has a regulation on red mud," Boudreault said. "They have
a mandate to recover 20 percent of the red mud accumulated
there by 2015. So the nexus of interest is Europe and
"The site could be a legacy red
mud deposit that has been in existence for maybe more than 100
years, especially in Germany and France," he said. "There is a
big will on the part of the governments to recover the land.
These problems do not go away."
Boudreault noted that worldwide
stocks of untreated red mud are pegged at almost 3 billion
tonnes and estimates that some 100 million tonnes of red mud
join the global stockpile annually. As a rule of thumb, some 2
tonnes of red mud are generated for every 1 tonne of alumina
produced, he said.
But Orbites ambitions go
way beyond mining the worldwide red mud mound. "Our vision is
to change the alumina industry by building up to 10
smelter-grade alumina (SGA) plants serving Quebec, the
third-largest aluminum-producing region in the world, building
several high-purity alumina plants and licensing our SGA
technology internationally," Boudreault said of the road
And so far, so good, he claims,
citing the startup and initial production of high-purity
alumina at Cap-Chat. Plans call for non-commercial production
of HPA to continue throughout the commissioning of the plant at
a rate of less than 1 tonne daily. "The first HPA samples for
customers in Europe, America and Asia will be shipped as the
material becomes available throughout the first quarter of
2013," Boudreault said.
Orbite expects the Cap-Chat
plant to start commercial production in the second quarter,
with plans to offer HPA powder and HPA granules ranging from 4N
to an eventual 6N (99.9999 percent) purity.
Cap-Chat is slated to hit its
full production stride of 5 tonnes of alumina per day by the
end of this year. The company also anticipates the production
of gallium and scandium once a planned recovery circuit is
complete in mid-2013.
Orbite is counting on two key
drivers to deliver profits and growth, Boudreault said. One is
the uniqueness of its patented technology, which he said
"differs significantly from the rest of the HPA industry and is
expected to produce higher purities at lower production costs
than existing producers."
The other is changing dynamics
in the target markets for the material. HPA is used principally
for the production of synthetic sapphires, which in turn serve
as substrates in the LED (light emitting diode) industry as
well as in displays for hand-held devices and televisions.
These markets are expected to experience significant growth
over the next few years, Boudreault said, with the LED industry
getting a healthy boost from regulations in numerous countries
for phasing out the manufacture and sale of incandescent light
While Orbite does not intend to
license its HPA technology, it does plan to award licenses for
its SGA know-how internationally in return for a revenue
royalty. The companys first SGA plant is said to be in
the feasibility study phase, with Phase 1 construction targeted
to begin next year and initial production beginning in
Although the SGA plant site
selection process is not complete, Orbite has said it is
negotiating with Moscow-based aluminum producer United Co.
Rusal and other potential joint-venture partners.
The company has already set the
stage for further growth by acquiring exclusive mining rights
over a total of nearly 145,000 acres, including the
Grande-Vallee property, which contain indicated resources of 1
billion tonnes that could potentially satisfy 50 percent of
Quebecs annual alumina imports for more than 50 years,