Australian Government Awards Grant to Project for Using Solar Energy in Alumina Refining

Australian Government Awards Grant to Project for Using Solar Energy in Alumina Refining
Aerial view of the Alcoa refinery, on the shore at Kwinana. Source: ARENA

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has chosen a product that could lead to Australia’s aluminium manufacturers using solar thermal energy instead of fossil fuels to refine alumina. The government agency is funding the project and will partner with American aluminium producer Alcoa.

The project, which ARENA chief Ivor Frischknecht called “essential,” is projected to cost A$15 million, A$4.5 million of which will be funded by a grant from ARENA.

“This is about turning bauxite into alumina. It uses a huge amount of heat,” said Frischknecht 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.”

If fully implemented, the project is expected to cut Australia’s industrial sector’s use of fossil fuels by half. It’s being led by the University of Adelaide, and includes representatives from CSIRO, ETH Zurich, Hatch, IT Power, UNSW, and San Diego State University. They are attempting to develop technologies and processes for integrating low-temperature concentrated solar thermal (CST) energy, solar reforming of natural gas, and high temperature CST into the Bayer process.

Gus Nathan, University of Adelaide project leader, indicated that the project is important because it’s the first time solar thermal technology has been used for industrial heat generation instead 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,” explained Nathan.

If the project is successful in alumina refining, the potential for similar technology exists in refining other materials, like magnesia, zirconia and lime, he said.

“Broadly,” he continued, “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.”