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Orbite Aluminae sees red mud become red gold

Keywords: Tags  Orbite Aluminae Inc., Veolia Environmental Services, red mud, Pascal Decary, Richard Boudreault

Two companies are pooling their expertise to tackle red mud, a problem that has long created environmental and logistical challenges for aluminum producers.

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 Orbite’s 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 AMM.

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, Boudreault said.

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, it’s a constant challenge for companies looking to expand aluminum production capacity to obtain new permits for storage ponds.

But if Orbite’s 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 that’s attracted the interest of some of the world’s biggest aluminum producers.

Orbite’s 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 Orbite’s process has been around since the 1960s or ’70s, Boudreault said. But it wasn’t until recently that the technology could be profitably brought to market.

And while Orbite is not opposed to eliminating effects on the environment, it’s not in the philanthropy business.

Boudreault said he isn’t concerned about Orbite’s intellectual property being stolen because the firm keeps its secrets well. And even if such a thing should occur, the company has intellectual property insurance.

But Boudreault wondered why a third party might choose to violate the terms of any potential licensing deal for Orbite’s 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 sources.

“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.”

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