Two companies are pooling their
expertise to tackle red mud, a problem that has long created
environmental and logistical challenges for aluminum
Doubters might call it alchemy,
but Saint-Laurent, Quebec-based alumina producer Orbite
Aluminae Inc. and Paris-based waste handler Veolia
Environmental Services are looking to turn billions of tonnes
of caustic red mud that is rapidly filling up storage ponds
into a commodity that could bolster companies profits.
The two firms signed a collaborative agreement earlier this
year for the treatment and recycling of alumina production
waste using Orbites patented process.
Our unmatched presence in the waste value chain
serves a long-term vision that drives us to build sustainable
partnerships such as the one drawn up with Orbite, Veolia
senior executive vice president Pascal Decary said in
announcing the partnership. They are the key to best
mining practices and guaranteeing supply that Veolia
Environmental Services can bring to meet rising industry
demand, which is a major environmental challenge.
Orbite estimates that there are
3 billion tonnes of red mud--a byproduct of traditional
aluminum production--currently on the planet. That number could
jump to 4 billion tonnes between 2015 and 2018, company
president and chief executive officer Richard Boudreault told
Red mud has made international
headlines in the wake of such disasters as a reservoir breach
in 2010 in Hungary that devastated parts of the country,
Boudreault said. Closer to home, there have been incidents such
as pink snowfall in Quebec resulting from red mud being blown
into the winter air from a storage pond.
This is a very caustic
material with an important ecological and environmental
impact, especially if it seeps into streams and rivers,
Aluminum producers currently
incur steep costs to store and transport red mud, he said,
estimating the cost to store the material at roughly $50 to $60
per tonne. Even if a company sells or divests an aluminum
production facility, it often maintains responsibility for a
pond of red mud, along with a host of associated potential
liabilities and insurance costs.
China is moving to address its
acknowledged red mud problem, and countries such as
Germany--where aluminum has been produced for more than a
century--are running out of space to store the material,
Boudreault said. In addition, its a constant challenge
for companies looking to expand aluminum production capacity to
obtain new permits for storage ponds.
But if Orbites patented
technologies were to be adopted on a wide scale, red mud could
go from being a drag on the bottom line to a commodity worth as
much as $150 to $350 per tonne, Boudreault said. And
thats attracted the interest of some of the worlds
biggest aluminum producers.
technology extracts alumina and other valuable resources,
including rare earths, from red mud using a process Boudreault
described as roughly similar to the human digestive system.
When you were a kid, I bet you had the wisdom to eat sand
from the sandbox. And ... you did not die of silicosis
because the human body can separate out dirt and sand--which is
largely silica--thanks to acid in the gut.
In a roughly similar process,
Orbite uses glass-lined containers and a computerized pH
monitoring system to separate valuable materials from red mud,
which is largely a combination of silicon and iron.
The basic idea behind
Orbites process has been around since the 1960s or
70s, Boudreault said. But it wasnt until recently
that the technology could be profitably brought to market.
And while Orbite is not opposed
to eliminating effects on the environment, its not in the
Boudreault said he isnt
concerned about Orbites intellectual property being
stolen because the firm keeps its secrets well. And even if
such a thing should occur, the company has intellectual
But Boudreault wondered why a
third party might choose to violate the terms of any potential
licensing deal for Orbites technology because there would
be consequences if alumina in, for example, lawn chairs or
airplanes was traced back to Orbite technology, which leaves a
different trace than the traditional Bayer process. Any company
violating the terms of a license would not be able to
export those lawn chairs, and airplanes made with that alumina
would not be allowed to fly above Canada or the U.S.--which
might pose a problem, Boudreault said.
Orbite said in February that it
also had been issued patents in China and Russia for processes
to produce alumina from aluminous ores, bauxite and other
Demand for alumina
continues to grow on a global scale, Boudreault said at
the time, and worldwide stocks of untreated red mud are
estimated at nearly 3 billion tonnes. By partnering together,
Orbite and Veolia become the global leader in the treatment and
recycling of red mud, which is one of the main environmental
challenges for the aluminum industry.