From red mud to rare earths - Orbite's ground breaking technologies
Orbite Aluminae's technology tackles the aluminium industry's most serious problem of treating red mud while it also reckons to be able to separate rare earths from aluminous clays
Posted: Thursday , 02 Aug 2012
Orbite Aluminae is a Canadian company which reports it has come up with some ground breaking aluminium related technologies which could, if proven on a commercial scale, have a remarkable impact on the global aluminium and alumina sector. One process it has developed enables the extraction of smelter, or metallurgical, grade alumina (SGA), high-purity alumina (HPA) and a number of other high value elements, including rare earths from locally sourced aluminous clays which it plans to deploy in processing a clay deposit at its Grande Vallée project near Gaspé in Quebec province. (see Aluminum giants take note of this Quebec junior).
But its ambitions go a big stage further what might already seem to be a potentially highly rewarding and major project on its own. Its technology can also be applied, the company says, to red muds which are probably the most significant, and environmentally unfriendly, waste product of the traditional Bayer process for aluminum production. It thus claims to offer the only ecologically sound and commercially viable alternative to manage and eliminate these toxic residues.
Orbite notes that according to the International Committee for Study of Bauxite, Alumina & Aluminium (ICSOBA), alumina producers generated in 2011 alone more than 100 million tonnes of red mud of which only 5% was reused. The rest is stored in ponds and reservoirs, entailing significant environmental risks. For example, on October 4, 2010, a flood of toxic red mud devastated Hungary after a retaining dyke ruptured, causing an ecological disaster. India, China, Canada, and Brazil have also been affected by spills. The environmental and social costs associated with the Bayer process and global aluminum production have become so high that several countries now oppose the development of new mining and production facilities. Orbite says that its technology is an ecological and economically viable solution to this problem.
The technology converts red mud into a dry, inert, and most importantly, environmentally neutral residue that is less than 90% of the volume of its original state. In the process high commercial value products are also recuperated, including alumina (which can make up 25% of red mud), ultra-pure haematite (which is what gives the toxic residue its red colour) and magnesium oxide, as well as rare metal oxides that can have significant residual economic value. Orbite's team of engineers has verified these results using red mud samples with properties characteristic common to those that currently confront the alumina industry. It has developed what it describes as a large-scale industrial process capable of treating red mud while individually recovering its main components.
Orbite now intends to license its technology to producers interested in reducing their environmental footprint and their risk of contamination, but also in reducing operating costs and growing their revenues.
As Kip Keen points out in a parallel article (Orbite Aluminae hails process to treat 'toxic' red muds) Richard Boudreault, Orbite's president and CEO, spoke about the company's work on the method and said Orbite's technique may even generate profit for users of it.
"We have done some numbers and it can generate a payback after a few years," Boudreault then said, adding, however, that "It depends very much on the site."
Orbite describes itself as a Canadian clean tech company which owns ten different families of intellectual property rights (and patents pending) filed across the world for the extraction of alumina at the highest standards of sustainability. It also owns exclusive mining rights over a total of 60,984 hectares including the 6,665 hectares Grande-Vallée property where an NI 43-101 compliant report identified over 1 billion tonnes of aluminous clay in part of this deposit.
The company is currently converting its 2,600 m2 pilot plant in Cap-Chat, Quebec into a full-scale high-purity alumina production facility, and expects this plant to be fully operational in early 2013. Metallurgical specialist Outotec has agreed to terms for a project related to the Orbite's new plant to process high purity alumina. The scope of delivery for Outotec involves both basic and detail engineering as well as providing fluidized bed technology with special Outotec equipment for decomposing and calcining high purity alumina. Orbite anticipates the launch of construction of its first SGA plant towards the end of 2013 and plans to offer SGA and HPA products and to license its low processing cost technologies to well-qualified producers who want to reduce their environmental footprint. It reports that it has recently entered into partnerships with the world's largest aluminum producer, UC Rusal, and Asia's largest aluminum complex, National Aluminium Company Limited in India.