ARENA backs plan to use solar energy for alumina smelting

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Use of solar in Alcoa alumina smelting operations could lead to solar energy cutting use of fossil fuels in industry by up to half.

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A project that could lead to the use of solar thermal technology by Australia’s large industrial sector – and cut its reliance on fossil fuels in half – has been selected by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency in its latest round of funding.

Alcoa_Kwinana-refinery
Alcoa’s Kwinana alumina refinery

Led by the University of Adelaide, the project will work with Australian aluminium giant Alcoa to evaluate the potential for using concentrating solar thermal technologies to generate the industrial process heat used in its alumina refineries in Australia and beyond.

The $15 million project – which ARENA chief Ivor Frischknecht has described as “essential” – was awarded a $4.5 million from the Agency, making it “the biggest project in the round by far.”

“This is about turning bauxite into alumina. It uses a huge amount of heat,” Frischknecht said at the ARENA funding announcement on Wednesday. “Aluminium refining and smelting is obviously big industry in Australia, so this is about exploring options that use solar thermal to generate that heat, as opposed to vast amounts of gas, or some plants use coal.”

The project team – which also includes the CSIRO, ETH Zurich, Hatch, IT Power, UNSW and the San Diego State University – aims to develop the technologies and process knowledge to progressively integrate low temperature CST, solar reforming of natural gas, and high temperature CST into the existing Bayer process.

Ultimately, the goal is to develop technologies to maintain continuous production through hybridisation with solar energy to reduce the use of fossil fuels by up to 45 per cent, cut emissions and hedge against increasingly volatile natural gas prices.

University of Adelaide project leader Gus Nathan told RenewEconomy that the project was important because it was one of the first to test the use of solar thermal in industrial heat generation, rather than the generation of electricity.

“Electricity is less than half the total energy needs in society, and there is currently no commercial demonstration of thermal energy – solar thermal – in the generation of industrial heat processing,” Nathan said.

In terms of potential fossil fuel energy displacement, he added, “this is actually bigger than electricity, so it’s important. …We’re targeting about 50 per cent renewable energy.”

Nathan said that while the actual project itself had not formally kicked off, the research and development team had been meeting with Alcoa to get the quoting underway. In the short term, the team hoped to deliver a funding submission for demonstration within two years.

If all goes to plan with the Alcoa project, the implications for industry could be huge, with applications for similar refininf processes including magnesia, zirconia and lime, said Nathan.

“Broadly,” he added, “the use of solar thermal is applicable to most chemical processes that use heat – steel, iron, glass, fuels – it’s a pathway to broader industry.”

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8 Comments
  1. david_fta 4 years ago

    This has huge potential for the future of minerals processing – particularly when molten oxide electrolysis (how alumina is converted to aluminium) is adapted to iron.

  2. lin 4 years ago

    Given our deserts and our mineral resources, this could be our gift to the planet – fossil fuel free metal production. Fantastic that it is finally getting some attention.

  3. Ian 4 years ago

    Sophie, you’ve done it again. You’ve brought to this site an amazing application of renewable energy that could potentially save vast amounts of energy. Is it true that alumina smelting usually involves electrical heating before the electrolysis process happens? 45 % of the electricity goes to heating. That is iniquitous. How very lazy, and wasteful the aluminium industry has been up to this point. Seriously, Tasmania’s wilderness areas have been flooded, primarily to support hydro power for aluminium smelting, a huge hole was created near Anglesea in Victoria for a coal mine supplying this same industry, the list goes on. All this time we thought the electrolysis process was so difficult that it needed plentiful energy purely in the form of electricity to convert bauxite to aluminium, when back at the ranch a large proportion was just to generate heat. This is seriously not good enough.

    By doing this research these people may have exposed a few energy skeletons in the aluminium industry closet. A bit like Putin’s bank account in Panama.

    • Ian 4 years ago

      Is there any reason why aluminium smelting or other metals refining can’t be done on a much smaller scale? As a cottage industry perhaps. We now have access to distributed electricity generation, why not distributed industry? Highly sophisticated technology has enabled home solar power generation, why not use similar high tech to create mom and dad industry? How about that, the youtube or Über of manufacturing! we could out-Chinese the Chinese with manufacturing and all of it at home.

      We have already corporatised everything from work to home life to child care. Some women find jobs just to pay for child care and after school care. Why not reverse the trend and have a village or city of home industries cooperating to produce cars , bikes, batteries etc each person his or her own boss and working in his or own home, using their home generated electricity.

      Sophie, burst my bubble and tell me that professor X of state university Y, n years ago had already thought of this.

      • JonathanMaddox 4 years ago

        Economies of scale. Bigger aluminium smelters cost less.

        Home solar power generation is enabled by economies of scale at the solar cell factory.

        Some things can work as cottage industries, but only if they are highly labour intensive. Capital- and energy-intensive things like metallurgy and semiconductor manufacturing don’t qualify.

  4. Bruce 4 years ago

    I believe this article deals with the refining of Bauxite at the W.A. Refineries into Alumina. Maybe the heading should be Refining rather than Smelting.

    A portion of this Alumina in WA is then shipped to the Aluminium Smelter in Portland Victoria, where the Alumina is transformed into Aluminium Ingots mainly for export. This is the Anode/Cathode process that requires a great deal of Coal fired Electricity.

    • david_fta 4 years ago

      You’re quite correct, I was initially confused by Sophie’s use of the term “smelting” when it should have been “refining” – hence my overly euphoric comment above.

      Still, there’s always a chance that once solar thermal is proved up, it will be applied to metal smelting – if not to carbon nanofibre synthesis from atmospheric CO2 (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b02427).

  5. AuldLochinvar 3 years ago

    The most obvious question is how many birds will have their wings burnt off. See anything on the Ivanpah Electricity Generating and Bird Grilling Facility.
    Plus, Bruce is right about the electricity. The final stage is electrolysis, at a rate of three electrons per Al atom, and the carbon anodes are steadily being oxidised.

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