Aluminium smelting

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Overview of the Point Henry smelter, operated by Alcoa World Alumina and Chemicals in Australia

Aluminium smelting is the process of extracting aluminium from its oxide alumina, generally by the Hall-Héroult process. Alumina is extracted from the ore Bauxite by means of the Bayer process at an alumina refinery.

This is an electrolytic process, so an aluminium smelter uses prodigious amounts of electricity; they tend to be located very close to large power stations, often hydro-electric ones, and near ports since almost all of them use imported alumina.

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Layout of an aluminium smelter

An aluminium smelter consists of a large number of pots, steel containers lined with carbon, in which the electrolysis takes place; smelting is run as a batch process, with the aluminium metal deposited at the bottom of the pots and periodically siphoned off. Power must be constantly available, since the pots have to be repaired at significant cost if the liquid metal solidifies.

The anodes are made of carbon, generally derived from Anthracite and pitch.

A typical smelter contains anywhere from 300 to 720 pots, each of which produces about a ton of aluminium a day, though the largest proposed smelters are up to five times that capacity.

Environmental issues of aluminium smelters

The process produces a quantity of fluoride waste: perfluorocarbons and hydrogen fluoride as gases, and sodium and aluminium fluorides and unused cryolite as particulates. This can be as small as 0.5 kg per ton of aluminium in the best plants in 2007, up to 4 kg per ton of aluminium in older designs in 1974. Unless carefully controlled, these fluorides tend to be very toxic to vegetation around the plants.

The Soderburgh process which bakes the Anthracite/pitch mix as the anode is consumed, produces significant emissions of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as the pitch is consumed in the smelter.

The linings of the pots end up contaminated with cyanide-forming materials; Alcoa has a process for converting spent linings into aluminium fluoride for reuse and synthetic sand usable for building purposes and inert waste.

Example aluminium smelters

See also