What's Alumina? It Is the Stuff That Aluminum Is Made Of, and Making It Is a Problem

There is an alumina crisis right now. Making it is dirty and polluting, and it's back in the USA.

Aluminium ore quarry with bauxite clay open-pit mining
Open-pit mining in an aluminum ore quarry in Kazakhstan.

Alexey Rezvykh / Getty Images

There's an alumina crisis in the world right now; supplies of the white powder are tight and prices are rising. And the first question that even my spellchecker asks is, what's alumina? It keeps changing it to aluminum. It's not; it is aluminum oxide, the stuff that aluminum is made from.

Everyone knows that aluminum is the green wonder metal; it makes Teslas and Fords lighter and more energy efficient, and is so easily recycled, saving over 90 percent of the energy that is needed to make new metal. What could be wrong with this picture?

What's wrong is that demand for aluminum far exceeds the supply of recycled aluminum and that demand is growing with every new light electric car or truck. Whenever I suggest this might be a problem (as I did in my review of Carl Zimring's book, "Aluminum Upcycled") readers write "this is absurd" and "BS" and what's wrong with aluminum? So let's discuss this alumina crisis and go through it again, this time backwards from the finished product.

How Aluminum Is Made

TVA Power
 Tennessee Valley Authority/Public Domain

Aluminum is made by running electricity through a reduction pot filled with dissolved alumina crystals; basically, every pound of aluminum is made from about two pounds of alumina, or aluminum oxide. It takes a lot of energy to break the bond between aluminum and oxygen, about 15 Kilowatt-hours per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of aluminum. That's why the great dams of the Tennessee Valley and the Columbia River were built – to generate electricity to make aluminum for airplanes. When that electricity became too valuable because it was needed for cooling and lighting buildings, the aluminum smelting industry followed the cheap hydropower to Canada, Iceland, and Norway. It also creates a lot of carbon dioxide, as the oxygen given off when it is separated from the aluminum combines with the carbon from the electrodes (although this may change with new technology).

The alumina is made from bauxite, which is mined in giant open-pit mines in Jamaica, Russia, and Malaysia. The mining alone is hugely destructive, destroying agricultural lands and forests. Because of demand from China, Malaysia is being overrun. According to the BBC,

Annual output of bauxite ore has increased from a little over 200,000 tonnes in 2013, to nearly 20 million tonnes last year. Malaysia is now the world's top producer, accounting for nearly half of the supply to China's massive aluminium industry.
red mud spill
Red mud spill in Hungary.

STR / AFP / Getty Images 

In big industrial operations close to the source, the bauxite is crushed and cooked in caustic soda, and alumina hydrate is precipitated out. What's left is "red mud", a toxic mix of water and chemicals that is often held in ponds, that have leaked with disastrous results.

The separated alumina hydrate is then cooked at 2,000°F to drive off the water, leaving anhydrous alumina crystals, the stuff that aluminum is made from, and which is in really short supply right now.

The Alumina Disruption

The trouble started in Brazil, where Norsk Hydro ASA has just closed the world's largest alumina plant. The company has been fighting with the Brazilian government since February, when a huge rainstorm caused a flood of red mud. (The company denies it). Capacity was cut in half by the government.

Then in April, according to the Wall Street Journal, the US government imposed sanctions on Rusal and its founder Oleg Deripaska, the source of 6 percent of the world's alumina.

Meanwhile, in Western Australia, makers of 7 percent of the world's supply, Alcoa's three refineries have been closed since August due to strikes by the Australian Workers Union.

Finally, Norsk Hydro got fed up with the situation in Brazil and closed the alumina plant last week. According to Bloomberg, it had nowhere to store all that red mud.

Hydro blamed a specific embargo that prevents it from using the newer of two wastewater ponds at the site, after prosecutors said a February spill contaminated the adjoining Para river and local water supplies...Hydro announced the shutdown Wednesday, just days after prosecutors said it should take at least a year before the Alunorte refinery could resume full production. In a conference call with analysts, Hydro Chief Executive Officer Svein Richard Brandtzaeg said it was "impossible to say" when the court that ordered the plant to halve its operations would allow it to reopen at full production.

The alumina situation has become so desperate that Century Aluminum, the big coal-fired aluminum company that is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Trump administration's tariff on aluminum, has just signed a big contract to buy alumina from the Gramercy refinery in Louisiana, owned by Noranda Alumina. In its reporting, even the usually astute Financial Times misunderstands alumina, writing, "Alumina is a key ingredient in the production of the lightweight metal, along with bauxite." Alumina is processed bauxite, not a separate key ingredient. Alumina is it. But never mind, some think this is great news. From FT:

“As the last major smelter grade alumina refinery in the United States, we are intent on playing a major role in strengthening the American aluminium industry in the years to come,” David D’Addario, chief executive of Noranda Alumina, said.

Toxic By-products of Alumina

There is a reason that Gramercy is the last alumina refinery in the USA – it is a serious polluter. Just last year it applied to emit 1500 pounds of mercury into the air every year; David Mitchell of the Advocate notes that this is up to six times more than the second largest emitter in the state. It wasn't supposed to be emitting mercury, but Mitchell writes:

Noranda was already one of the top emitters of mercury into the environment because of its red mud waste ponds, which are laced with mercury. Former company officials had long believed that all mercury naturally in the bauxite ore was, after processing, chemically bound to the waste tailings sent to those red mud ponds. The red mud is stored in large leveed-off impoundments on the company's property.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality granted the permit because "the increased environmental benefit of cutting the emissions further wasn't enough to justify the economic impact on Noranda." Oh, and

"Notably, Noranda Aluminum is the only smelter-grade alumina refinery currently operating in the United States," DEQ officials said in a recent decision for the air permit modification. "Thus, continued operation of this facility is critical to ensure a domestic supply of smelter-grade alumina."
Aluminum consumption
 Uses for Aluminum / Statista

This is not absurd and it is not BS. Making aluminum is a significant source of carbon emissions and pollution, right here at home. Recycling more of your pop cans won't make much of a difference, because the majority of the aluminum is going into buildings, cars, trucks, and airplanes. We have to simply use less of the stuff. And that means, to quote Carl Zimring, we have to change the way we think about aluminum.

As designers create attractive goods from aluminum, bauxite mines across the planet intensify their extraction of ore at lasting cost to the people, plants, animals, air, land and water of the local areas. Upcycling, absent a cap on primary material extraction, does not close industrial loops so much as it fuels environmental exploitation.

This is why I go on about sufficiency, about the most appropriate solution. Because even Teslas cannot be considered sustainable if they are increasing demand for aluminum. Try a bike or a car share or anything instead, as long as it uses fewer resources. And for architects who think that specifying recycled aluminum is ok, it's not; it just creates more demand for the virgin stuff.

Until we reduce demand for aluminum to meet the supply of recycled aluminum, we are just contributing to more destruction and pollution, from Malaysia to Louisiana.