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Alumina, aluminium chemicals & zeolites


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bulletAlumina calcined
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bulletFused alumina
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Summary production table
(alumina and aluminium)

Alumina

Useful URLs for alumina production in Australia
bulletWorsley Alumina
bulletAlcoa
bulletAlumina US and world

Alumina (aluminium oxide, or Al2O3) is a white powder produced from bauxite ores (iron alumino silicate). As pure alumina, it contains 52.9 per cent aluminium. About 90 per cent of world production is as raw material for the manufacture of aluminium with the balance used to produce aluminium chemicals. Demand for aluminium is projected to increase by 2 per cent for 1998/99.

Alumina is produced by treating bauxite ore with caustic soda in the Bayer process. This process involves digesting bauxite at high temperatures with caustic soda which dissolves the alumina as sodium aluminate leaving iron oxide and silicates as waste products (red mud). On controlled cooling, alumina hydrate is precipitated which is calcined (heated) at 900 to 1000°C to alumina. Caustic soda is lost mainly with the clay and iron oxide particles. About one tonne of caustic is consumed for every 13 tonnes of alumina produced requiring about 25 to 27 gigajoules of gas per tonne of alumina (depending on the nature of the bauxite).

World demand is growing at 2 to 3 per cent.

Production

In 2000, Australia mined 50 million tonnes of bauxite to produce 15 million tonnes of alumina representing 32 per cent of world production of which 80 per cent was exported. 

World production in 2000 was 48million tonnes projected to increase to 83.5 million tonnes in 2020.

Alumina prices in 1997 averaged US$220 per tonne compared with US$174 in 1996. The price in early 1998 was $195 per tonne and 1999 at US$300 per tonne. (It is therefore around 14 per cent of the value of aluminium on a tonne alumina to tonne aluminium basis). The production for Alcoa has been estimated by some industry analysts at A$138 per tonne, down from A$152 in 1995.

Electricity consumption for alumina is around 260kWh per tonne implying a cost of 8 per cent of market value. For aluminium metal, requiring 14 000kWh per tonne (say 140 gigajoules of gas per tonne), the cost is around 45 per cent.

Showing how Australia's refineries are among the lowest cost in the world, the following table shows full operating costs (year 2000) estimates (which are reducing at 3 per cent per year):

 

Refinery

Capacity Mt

US$

Worsley

2.4

88.94

Wagerup

2.19

93.04

Damanjodi

1.05

102.70

Pinjarra

3.3

103.51

Gove

1.85

112.34

Belgaum

0.32

116.38

Gladstone

3.7

119.01

Bauxilum

2.0

127.66

Pinnguo

0.5

133.81

Kwinana

1.9

136.17

Poco de Caldos

0.275

139.19

 

Northern Territory

Nabalco is building (1999) a $43 million, 2700 tonnes/day fluid bed calciner at Gove, Northern Territory, the world’s largest; the unit will replace two of four rotary kilns, which will both be kept in working order in case of need. Site capacity remains at 1.75 Mt/year alumina, but costs, particularly energy costs, will be reduced. APA Group owns a 70 per cent interest. (APA comprises of Alcan of Canada, Pechiney of France and Ausuisse Lonze (Algroup) of Switzerland).

Queensland

Bauxite deposits are located on Cape York Peninsula. At Weipa Comalco (a Rio Tinto subsidiary) ships 9.5 million tonnes (capacity of 11 million tonnes) of beneficiated bauxite (and 200 000 tonnes of calcined bauxite). Alcan owns the Ely deposit but purchases 1.6 million tonnes of bauxite from Comalco with option for extension to 4 million tonnes.

About 7 million tonnes of bauxite is processed at the Queensland Alumina Limited refinery in Gladstone with a production capacity of 3.3 million tonnes of alumina (the largest in the world). Comalco owns 30.3 per cent and Alcan 23 per cent of the refinery.

Comalco is considering a 1 million tonne alumina operation for Gladstone, drawing on bauxite from Weipa deposits and using the alumina for its smelters at Boyne Island, Qld, Bell Bay Tasmania and at Tiwai Point, New Zealand. Expansion to 4 million tonne is envisaged. In April 2000, Comalco announced that in response to offered payments from the federal government, and the Queensland state government, it would not locate its proposed alumina refinery in Sarawak, Malaysia, but would evaluate the Gladstone site. At stage 1 it would cost A$1.4 billion, employ 450 and produce 1.4 million tonnes of alumina. By stage 3 it could produce 4 million tonnes per year. An alternative is the QAL site that could be expanded to 5.2 million tonnes which is managed by Comalco.

The federal and state governments have offered A$350 million (25 per cent of the cost of investment) to Rio Tinto (Comalco) to locate near the existing QAL plant. It is worth noting that the capital cost of a new alumina production unit is US$10 000 per tonne of alumina compared with expansion at US$5 000 per tonne. 

Western Australia

Western Australia is one of the lowest cost producers of bauxite in the world. It has accessible raw materials combined with low infrastructure costs that offsets the low alumina content (30 to 40 per cent) and the high level of organics (but low amounts of active silica). Reserves in the State are estimated at 4 000 million tonnes. Presently the lower grades in the Darling Range south east of Perth are being processed. Higher quality reserves are found in the north of the State (Mitchell Plateau and Cape Bougainville) which are underdeveloped due to their isolation.

Nearly all the alumina is exported to lower cost energy regions for smelting though some of the alumina is further processed to form abrasive products and with some production of hydrated alumina.

Production in 1999 was 7.3 million tonnes.

There are two producers,
bulletAlcoa of Australia with three refineries (located near mines - in brackets) at Kwinana (Jarrahdale, 51 km east of the refinery), Wagerup (Huntley, 8 km from the refinery - 2.2 million tonnes) and Pinjarra (Willowdale, 9 km from the refinery - 3.2 million tonnes); and
bulletWorsley Alumina owned bt BHP Billiton with a refinery 15km north-west of Collie (Saddleback Timber Reserve). The Pinjarra refinery is the second largest in the world after the QAL refinery at Gladstone with production at 3.25 million tonnes. In September 1997, the Worsley alumina smelter in WA announced it would spend A$800 million to upgrade production to 3.1 million tonnes per year for year 2000.

Alcoa Worldwide Alumina and Chemicals (ACAP) operates the Kwinana operation and is 40 per cent owned by Western Mining Corporation and 60 per cent by Alcoa Co of the USA trading as Alcoa Industrial-Chemicals-Asia. 

Kwinana produces 1.9Mt/A of alumina. In March 1999, Alcoa World Alumina reorganised its global bauxite and alumina business into two groups: Alcoa World Alumina Australia and Alcoa World Alumina Atlantic. 

Alcoa's refinery at Kwinana
Alcoa at Kwinana (near the ocean).

The Wagerup refinery has expanded production to 2.2 million tonnes.

Pinjarra produces 3.2 million tonnes per year. 

West Australian production capacity is 11 million tonnes per year, the largest alumina producing region in the world.

Alcoa has applied for a patent in July 1999 on a new process that improves the efficiency of alumina production by reducing the amount of carbonate in the Bayer Process circuit liquor. It is claimed to enable additional alumina production at a capital cost of $200 per tonne compared with $590 per tonne for expansion at Wagerup and $600 to $700 per tonne to carry out the next phase at Wagerup.

Calcined alumina

Alcoa produces about 50 000 tonnes of calcined (tabular) alumina, principally for the export market with applications in refractory cements.

Alumina can also be used to prepare special calcines that may include low soda (0.2%Na2O) and high surface area (50m2/gm) for specialist applications such as insulators for batteries. At present this strategy has not been pursued in Western Australia.

Hydrated alumina

During 1995, the KB-30 project was commissioned at Alcoa of Australia's alumina plant at Kwinana to reduce the organic contaminants. Owned by ACAP Singapore and ACAP Australia part of the worldwide Alcoa group, the plant has the capacity to produce 270 000 tpa of alumina hydrate valued at around A$45m.

The Kwinana refinery, having commenced in 1963, operates five small units providing flexibility. Part of the alumina stream may be further processed with various filtration and impurity removal steps to produce a clear hydrate.

It is relevant to note that Alcoa uses some of the lowest grades of bauxite in the world which normally produces a high level of organic by-product. The small fragmented scale of operation of this old Kwinana plant enables it to overcome this handicap.

There are several grades. KB-30 is 99.5+% Al2O3.3H20 with 0.25%Na2O which is exported for use in the production of aluminium chemicals such as alum, sodium aluminate, poly-aluminium chloride and detergent zeolites, including for use in paper, fire retardants and water purifiers. It is also used in titanium dioxide pigment manufacture to improve its properties.

Other grades of lower purities and colouration are produced and sold to Companies such as Coogee Chemicals at Kwinana.

Fused alumina

Fused alumina is a granular material with a melting point of around 2 500°C and a hardness of 9 on the Mohs scale. It is used in a range of refractory bricks and monoliths and as abbrasive.

Australian Fused Materials, today owned by Japan Abrasive Company, ACAP (Alcoa of Australia) and Doral Minerals (owned by Iwatani International Corporation) was established in 1991 and now has a production capacity of 20 000 tonnes of fused alumina (corundum) per year. The plant is located at Rockingham, near Kwinana and the Alcoa refinery, some 40 km south of Perth.

Australian Fused Materials at Rockingham

The fused alumina is produced by fusing a low soda calcined alumina produced by the nearby Alcoa refinery in an electric arc furnace. The fused product is poured into ingots, crushed, sized and bagged.

It is a very energy intensive process requiring 2 000 kWh of electricity per tonne of product (at industry standard of A$0.06 kWh, is 12 per cent of market value).

About 80 per cent of production is exported and in 1992-93 AFM exported about 8 400 tonnes valued at $7.2m for use as abrasives and as refractory. Capacity has since been doubled to 20 000 tonnes.

The company also produces fused zirconia.

Australian Fused Materials
PO Box 84 Rockingham
WA 6168
Tel +618 9439 2236
Fax +618 9439 2892

Aluminium chemicals

Aluminium chemicals are produced byCoogee Chemicals and Hardman Australia.
See also (CIP presentation by its MD) is located at Kwinana.

Coogee Chemicals' Internet site.

The company produces (as aluminium chemicals);

  1. sodium aluminate as a coating extender in the titanium dioxide pigment industry as well as a cement additive.
  2. aluminium sulfate in liquid and solid form

Sodium aluminate

Coogee Chemicals manufactures sodium aluminate from hydrated alumina supplied by Alcoa for water treatment and for titanium dioxide pigment production. It is also produced for Alcoa under a toll basis for the alumina production process. Other uses are as feed material for white alumina hydrate and zeolite production and as a cement addititive.

Aluminium chloride

About 900 tonnes of aluminium chloride valued at $1m (FOB) was imported by Tiwest for their titanium dioxide pigment plant (1992-93). Aluminium chloride, unlike other common inorganic chlorides is difficult to manufacture so it is unlikely to be competitively produced in Western Australia (or indeed in Australia) given the small market and no comparative advantage.

Aluminium fluoride

Alichem proposes to manufacture aluminium fluoride at Kwinana, Western Australia by January 2001 in a $60 million plant (construction to begin end 1998). Aluminium fluoride is not manufactured in Australia and some 30 000 tpa is required by Australia's aluminium smelters as a flux presently imported from Europe, North America and North Africa. It would become the only manufacturer in the southern hemisphere.

Aluminium fluoride will be produced from locally produced aluminium hydrate and sulfuric acid using imported calcium fluoride (though Australia has fluorspar mineral deposits at Speewah in the Kimberley region of Western Australia - owned by Elmina NL). It will use technology provided by the Swiss company Buss CPS.

Aluminium sulfate

Aluminium sulfate is used in the paper industry to clarify and control the pH of process waters, process, waste and potable water treatment, cellulosic insulation, the manufacture of chemicals, catalysts, greases, soaps, leather tanning chemicals, fire extinguishing chemicals, in foods and for modifying concrete.

Commonly produced by reacting bauxite with sulfuric acid, an iron-free grade of aluminium sulfate can be produced from hydrated alumina. In the USA, iron- free form attracts a price premium of 40 to 50 per cent (equivalent to about A$150 per tonne). Based on containing the equivalent of 17 per cent Al2O3, one tonne of aluminium sulfate (iron free) valued at $400 per tonne can be produced from hydrated alumina valued at just $40. This margin suggests substantial potential for aluminium sulfate that should be evaluated with applications for cheap smelter-grade sufuric acid .

Another application for hydrated alumina is for the manufacture of zeolites.

Coogee Chemicals as the only manufacturer in Western Australia with a capacity of 20 000 tpa of liquid and 4 000 tpa as solid. The liquid form is used as a flocculant in domestic water purification and with a resin to provide water resistance to paper. The solid form is used in tanning and horticulture industries.

Zeolites

Zeolites are crystalline alumino silicates that microscopically have an open framework and regular structure. Different raw materials can be used to produce zeolites including sodium aluminate, sodium silicate, alumina trihydrate, colloidal silica and silicic acid. Naturally occurring zeolites can also be used for some applications after chemical modification. See Zeolite Australia

Zeolites are used in detergents, as catalysts in chemical processing, catalytic cracking of petroleum fractions, in gas separations and ion exchangers. The largest and fastest growing market for zeolites is as replacement for phosphates in detergents (as a builder as Zeolite A). Zeolites are extensively used where phosphates are a problem in waterways (through eutrophication) with world production being 1 million tpa and growing at 5 per cent p.a.

The US market for zeolites is valued at US$0.9billion. Catalysts are the biggest sector representing two-thirds of demand and growing at 2 per cent per year. Synthetic represent about one-third with a current growth of 4 per cent per year. A small but fast growing sector is for use in pet litter growing at 10 per cent per year to reach $8m by 2000.

Currently the Australian market for zeolites as replacement for phosphates is estimated to be less than 5 000 tonnes - less than half the size of a competitive scale plant. There is no direct market in Western Australia as zeolites are principally and potentially used by the large transnational detergent manufacturers in New South Wales and Victoria.

Coogee Chemicals has a relationship with PQ Australia (international manufacturers of silicates and zeolites) to manufacture zeolites when the Australian market for their use in laundry powders develops to adequate size. Though there is some environmentally motivated interest in restricting the use of phosphates in some locations, it remains to be seen whether this will be significant given detergents are only a small contributor to the problem in waterways. Any reduction in demand for phosphates will be directly reflected in Australian demand for zeolites rising to perhaps 30 000 tonnes per year.

Manufacture

Zeolites are produced from sodium silicate and sodium aluminate. Kwinana is a competitive location for the manufacture of zeolites. Hydrated alumina is available from Alcoa, cheap high quality silica is also available, and from the perspective of Coogee Chemicals as a manufacturer, it would use their sodium silicate, sodium aluminates, aluminium hydroxides and caustic soda. Offsetting the local advantage, zeolites are also high volume low mass products so that some raw material-based advantage may be eroded by high distribution costs to the major markets.

Zeolites can be used in laundry powders and industrial cleaning preparations produced for markets dominated by transnational manufacturers such as Lever and Kitchen and Colgate Palmolive. The alliance with PQ will therefore be important but it will not be relevant for any backward integration to produce surfactant products in Western Australia. The limited West Australian market and the current pattern of investment by those transnational manufacturers suggest local production of consumer market oriented surfactants is unlikely in the intermediate term.

With the previous qualifications, the manufacture of zeolites in Western Australia shows many elements of comparative advantage. The manufacture of the more sophisticated (higher value added) forms of zeolites such as catalysts in chemical processing, in gas separations and as ion exchangers could be evaluated.

Zeolite Australia

Zeolite Australia Ltd has a zeolite deposit at Werris Creek in Qld with reserves of 300 000 tonnes (inferred at 10 million tonnes). The zeolite could be used for waste water treatment using its Zeoflocc process.

Aluminium smelting (notes)

Boyne Island aluminium smelter near Gladstone operates with 450 000 tonne aluminium capacity 54.2 per cent owned by Comalco.

Bell Bay Tasmania, another smelter is also owned by Comalco.

The Point Henry (Near Geelong) Victoria aluminium smelter is wholly owned by Alcoa. Production is 180,000 tonnes with 650 employees. (A nearby rolling mill is jointly owned by Alcoa and Japan-based Kobe).

The Portland aluminium smelter at Portland Victoria with a capacity of 350 000 tonnes and is 45 per cent owned by Alcoa, 10 per cent by Eastern Aluminium and 45 per cent by the Chinese Government group China International Trust and Investment Corp (CITIC) and Japanese trading house Marubeni Corp. (The Victorian Government had a 25 per cent interest until August 1998 which it sold for A$502 m). The electricity had been subsidised by the government being tied to the price of aluminium such as to reduce costs by A$1 billion between 1985 to 1998 (Point Henry in Victoria also received such assistance valued at A$0.45 bn).

The Capral-owned 170 000 tonns per year aluminium smelter at Kurri, NSW has told the NSW Government that its $250 mill, 50 kt/year metal expansion program (to 220 kt/year of aluminium) is at risk unless it can negotiate a competitive power contract with the State; electricity accounts for about 25% of the smelter’s operating cost. Capral Aluminium said that it would now (9/99) not proceed with plans for a $250 mill expansion of its Kurri Kurri, NSW smelter because of low aluminium prices and uncertainty about continued access to cheap power. In March 2000, failure to renegotiate prices, understood to be A$22 per megawatt hour ($0.22 per kilowatt hour) is promoting its sale.

The aluminium smelter at Tomago New South Wales has production capacity of 440 000 tonnes which is seventh largest in the world. It is managed by Pecheney/VAW joint venture.

Pechiney SA of France and Algroup of Switzerland (formerly Alusuisse) said that they were at an advanced stage of talks with each other, and with Alcan Aluminium of Canada, to merge and become the world's largest aluminium producer with annual revenues of US$ 20 billion, compared to Alcoa’s US$ 15 billion.

In 2000 there were three aluminium producers worldwide Alcoa (that absorbed Reynolds, Algroup (that absorbed Alcan) collectively supplying 33 per cent of the world's aluminium production - the other large group is Pechiney.

World aluminium production is growing at 3 per cent with secondary (recycled) aluminium representing 25 per cent of demand, growing at 4.7 per cent and primary at 3.9 per cent. 

Aldoga Aluminium Smelters to build 500 000 tpa aluminium smelter at Aldoga 25 km west of Gladstone Qld to cost A$3 billion requiring some 800 megawatts per hour of power. It is proposed by Aust-Pac Aluminium Pty Ltd at a registered business address of Snalyn which trades as Keating Associates (Keating is a former Labor Prime Minister - other directors are linked to property developer Warren Anderson).

It has been offered power by the state of Queensland at US$0.012 to US$0.015 per kilowatt hour (ie. at variable cost - subsidised). New South Wales Treasurer believes the electricity prices  were unsustainable and subsidised). As at Feb 2001, it has not indicated a source for its alumina.

Summary table

Operation Company

State

Capacity

 

 

Kt

Bauxite Mines

 

 

Weipa 100% Comalco

Qld

11 000

Huffily 100% Alcoa World Alumina and Chemical

WA

19000

Willodale 100% Alcoa World Alumina and Chemical

WA

8000

Boddington 56% Reynolds 30% Billiton

WA

6800

Gove 70% Swiss Aluminium, 30% Gove Aluminium

NT

6500

Total

 

51300

 

 

 

Alumina Refineries

 

 

Gladstone 30% Comalco, 28% Kaiser, 20% Pechiney, 21 % AI

Qld

3460

Kwinana Alcoa World Alumina and Chemical

WA

1 900

Pinjarra Ale World Alumina and Chemical

WA

3200

Wagerup Alcoa World Alumina and Chemical

WA

2200

Worsley 56% Reynolds 30% Billiton

WA

3100

Gove 70% Swiss Aluminium, 30% Gave Aluminium

NT

1 800

Total

 

15660

 

 

 

Aluminium Smelters

 

 

Kurri Kurri 100% VAW

NSW

150

Tomago 35% Pechiney, 35% Gove Aluminium, 15% AMP, 12% VAW

NSW

440

Point Henry 100% Alcoa World Alumina and Chemicals

Vic

180

Portland 55% Alcoa World Alumina and Chemicals, 22.5% Marubeni 22.5% CITIC

Vic

180

Boyne Island Lines 1&2: 50% Comalco 17% SLIM, 9.5% Kobe

9.5% Ryowa, 9.5% YKK, 4.5% Simitomo Chernical

Qld

492

Bell Bay 100% Comalco

Tas

137

Total

 

1 744

 

 

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