Unsurprisingly, the economic crisis
of 2009 sent, not just ripples, but shockwaves through the
non-met alumina industry. Levels of production and demand have
recovered from the severe dip in 2009, but are still not quite
to pre-crisis levels. That said, the industry is preparing
itself for a recovery.
Approximately 94% of the alumina
market is used in metallurgical applications. The remainder,
around 5.5m tonnes in 2012, is used in non-metallurgical
markets. The largest producer is in Western Europe (see pie
The largest end use for alumina is
the refractories industry, which accounts for around 60% of
total non-met alumina produced.
In refractories the main products
used are calcined alumina, tabular alumina, white fused alumina
(WFA) and brown fused alumina (BFA). All of these aluminas
(aside from BFA) are obtained using the Bayer process.
Alumina and refractories in
Probably the biggest news in the
market in 2013 was Almatis purchase of Ormet Corp.s
alumina refinery, which marked a step into vertical integration
for the company.
The company first announced its
intention to purchase bankrupt Ormet Corp.s refinery in
October 2013, for $35.3m.
Germanys Almatis, the
worlds leading supplier of premium alumina, completed the
purchase of Ormet Corp.s 500,000 tpa alumina refinery at
Burnside, Louisiana, US, in December 2013.
This meant the company essentially
secured feedstock for the production of its alumina products,
which it supplies to the refractory, ceramic and polishing
Documents filed with the US
Bankruptcy Court in Delaware, US, revealed that the purchase
excluded Ormets assets at its idled 270,000 tpa aluminium
smelter in Hannibal, Ohio, which had been supplied with
material from the Burnside plant.
This was interesting because
after long periods of companies spinning out and doing things
separately, this signified a spate of consolidation, Ted
Dickson, an independent consultant, told
However, there have been other
opportunities in the industry that are noteworthy. The German
based Nabaltec, a speciality alumina producer, signed an
agreement in 2005 with Nashtec and Sherwin Alumina, a leading
US aluminium oxide manufacturer, to produce finely precipitated
aluminium hydroxide (ATH) as a non-halogenated, flame-retardant
filler that reaches the US market via Sherwin.
The company also revealed that it
is looking for other opportunities for further partnerships
elsewhere, including Asia, if the right opening presented
Alteo, the speciality producer and
the first to produce industrial scale Bayer alumina, based in
Gardanne, France, told IM that it continues to
eye new markets outside of Europe.
With 80% of our turnover
outside France and almost doubling outside Europe over the last
five years, the development of our presence around the world is
a major part of our strategy, Frederic Rame, president,
We now have three commercial
hubs with14 sales offices. These are located in the main
regional zones (Europe, North America and Asia), with an
enhanced network throughout Asia permitting us to develop
business in these fast growing markets. Furthermore, in
addition to the enhancement of our sales team in China, we are
sharpening our focus in the Middle East and India, he
Calcined alumina can be used
directly in refractory applications, as well as a feedstock to
produce higher grade alumina products (for example, tabular
alumina). Demand for calcined alumina was expected to be around
2.8m in 2013, according to market sources and roughly equal to
levels in 2012. Of this number, approximately 20% was intended
for WFA, 16% for tabular alumina and 19% for refractories.
Tabular alumina, so called because
the end-product of the sintered alumina balls resemble tablets,
has seen a rise in demand over 2012, according to Chinas
Zhejiang Zili. Zili intends to be the worlds largest
tabular alumina producer, a position currently held by Almatis.
Other producers include Alteo, Japans Naigai and
Demand for WFA stands at around
half a million tpa, but use is declining as refractories are
starting to use tabular alumina over WFA, which is cheaper and
more environmentally friendly.
BFA meanwhile is produced by fusing
calcined bauxite, and is therefore lower in alumina and cheaper
than WFA. Approximately 2.3m tonnes of BFA were produced in
2012, of which the majority, almost two thirds, was produced in
Alteo said that its speciality
aluminas had performed particularly well, outlining
that low soda alumina, zirconia alumina and sintered bauxite
had performed particularly strongly.
We have increasingly better
results in the refractory and ceramics markets. We will
strengthen this leading position, with ongoing products and
service development in these and other growing markets such as
flame retardants, Rame said.
As well as being used in
refractories, alumina is also used, as ATH, in water treatment
and flame retardants, as well as in other markets.
These sectors are also marginally
more protected from economic peaks and troughs as they
represent a need for a material in the consumer market which
surpasses the industry.
In water treatment, for example,
consumers will continue to drink tap water whether there is a
recession or not. However, the recession has meant that
developing countries have been slow to incorporate rolling out
water treatment in residential areas.
Nabaltec, a leading flame retardant
alumina producer, told IM that it has seen
growth in its functional filler and ceramic raw materials
division over the last 12 months.
The demand for halogen-free
mineral flame retardants is globally still high. Here we are
very well established in the cable and wire market with our
fine hydrates, Johannes Heckmann, technical affairs board
member at Nabaltec, told IM.
Flame retardants in
Aluminium trihydrate (ATH) is used
as a raw material in the aluminium chemicals industry, which is
used in glass and glazes, in catalyst production, as a flame
retardant, a smoke suppressant filler in plastics, as a raw
material in fertilisers and as a polishing agent.
The ATH market is divided into
chemical applications and flame retardants.
Between 600,000 and 700,000
tonnes of alumina a year are used in flame retardants,
Johannes Heckmann, board director at Nabaltec, told
Of that figure, approximately
280,000 tpa of alumina is used to make fine
hydrants, he added.
This is our focus. We see
ourselves as well positioned and try to move forward as one of
the leading manufacturers of fine precipitated hydrate,
Heckmann told IM.
About 80% of fine hydrants are used
in cables, wiring and thermoplastics.
Untreated materials tend to be used
in carpet underlay or sheeting.
Approximately 150,000 tpa of
alumina is used in ground or milled flame retardants which is
used in poxy resin, electronic components, wall sheets on the
tube and other transport applications, such as the backrests of
Other markets are also being
investigated as new developments and products become available.
Nabaltec has worked to develop a new product which aims to
substitute lead in PVC. This is a carbonate aluminium hydroxide
mix and is a patented material called Actilox CACH.
This is a very different
market. We came up with this as we work with a company that
approached us and we have the materials, Heckmann told
It is our goal to diversify
not only our product portfolio, but also look for new
applications, he added, making a point of the
companys entrance into the PVC market in 2011.
As we see new trends in
electromobility, we have invented a new product for the Li-ion
battery. We are also entering the catalyst market, which is of
course a long existing market, but has been, up to now, limited
to a few raw materials, Heckmann said.
The flame retardants market
and other products are being looked in to by Alteo, Rame
We are working on innovative
products for technical ceramics and flame retardant
markets, Rame added.
A good combination of our
special hydrate together with specific grinding could be a
substitute to the fines, or complementary to that.
Another product, FLO-2,
improves flowability in refractories, the company
This product came after Alteo
presented an R&D study on low-cement castable
In refractories and ceramics
markets the high price of zircon has led to alumina being used
in markets where zircon was previously used. Elsewhere, bauxite
is being used to substitute high alumina clays and some fused
aluminas, according to market sources.
Alteo said it developed its
ARZ¨ alumina range to replace zircon in ceramic
tile applications, as it saw an opportunity in this market.
The zircon market has been
very volatile in the last few years (...) And there are some
clear benefits from a specific alumina which we have developed
and can substitute part or all of zircon in the tile
market, Rame said.
We have been working
extensively on this, he added, We have a good
position on the tile market from our aluminas.
In terms of outlook, Nabaltec
admitted that 2014 would certainly be a year full of
expectations. Overcapacity remains an issue, Heckmann
told IM, which has created some pressure in
the industry, but he admitted that there were some hopes
for Europe as the world economy grows.
Alteo, meanwhile told
IM, that it anticipates some growth recovery
in the year ahead.
While the economic
environment remains uncertain, and our visibility limited, we
can still anticipate some growth recovery for 2014. In North
America, we anticipate good business levels and in Asia, growth
should remain attractive. Europe meanwhile starts to show some
more positive signs, even though we are still cautious for the
near future, Frederick Rame told IM.
In the meantime, with a
constant upward pressure on raw material and energy costs, it
seems inevitable that alumina prices will rise in the near
future, he added.
The alumina market then is growing
with the needs of the wider industrial minerals industry.
Higher prices in zircon markets, for example, have prompted the
development of a substitute alumina product. And the desire
from refractory producers to improve flowbility has also led to
some innovative new products. Equally, as lead becomes less
commonplace in the use of new technologies such as in li-ion
batteries, research has shown that alumina can be used here
Red mud waste for road construction?
Red mud hit the headlines in 2010 when Hungarys Magyar
Aluminiums (MAL) Ajka alumina plant saw a torrent of
toxic red sludge burst out of an alumina reservoir and tear
through local villages. The disaster left nine people dead,
more than 150 injured, many tens of houses destroyed and
hectares of land contaminated.
Australias Curtin University
engineers demonstrated that bauxitic red mud waste could be a
sustainable material used in road construction.
Red sand, previously an unusable,
unsustainable waste product, is derived by washing and
carbonating granular matter leftover as residue from the Bayer
alumina refining process.
The Sustainable Engineering Group
at Curtin University carried out trials using red sand as a
subbase and subgrade on a section of road.
This study demonstrated that
triple bottom line analysis of economic, social, and
environmental performance indicators for replacing virgin sand
and crushed limestone with Red Sand for subbase and subgrade
road construction applications and top dressing has significant
sustainability benefits, the report following the study
The company used the waste from
Alcoas Western Australia alumina refineries.
Approximately 30,000 tonnes of fine bauxite residue (red mud)
and 18,000 tonnes of a coarse sand fraction (residue sand) are
generated daily at the companys three refineries.
Replacing virgin sand and
crushed limestone with Red Sand has been found to be
financially feasible from both Alcoas and builders
perspectives due to construction cost savings and potential
carbon tax savings, the report added.
The global inventory of bauxite residue is estimated to be
around 3bn tonnes at the end of 2010 (Power et al,
2009)Êand growing at approximately 120m tpa, making it
one of the largest industrial waste streams in modern