The world over, aluminium companies are training their guns on a low carbon growth strategy. With emission reductions topping agendas at international conclaves, aluminium producers, upstream and downstream- are turning more to innovation to build a greener portfolio of products. The trigger for a shift to less polluting capacities is taking place more so in Asia where emission norms are lax when compared to the more developed economies of US and EU. Aluminium smelters in the People’s Republic of China are facing mounting pressure to comply with environment regulations and pull the plug on polluting facilities.
China’s case can serve as a wake-up call for Indian producers. In India, where aluminium consumption is projected to grow at a blistering rate, from a low base (per capita consumption is 2.4 kg), a balance has to be struck between capacity augmentation and environment impact mitigation. This is where innovation powered by a focused R&D blueprint can deliver.
Indian aluminium consumption is predicted to be eight million tonne per annum ten years from now, powered by sectors like automobile, electricity, building & construction and packaging. The aluminium that the Indian producers roll out has to meet the costs and environment challenges. The bigger challenge, though, would be from R&D, which if negotiated adroitly can take care of the entire value chain. In the Indian context, areas like new applications & product development, cost reduction, reduction of specific energy consumption, cutting emissions and generating value from process waste and process development should be viewed as R&D drivers for the aluminium value chain. These drivers can influence R&D initiatives of the whole aluminium value chain- from mining to alumina production, smelting to casting and then to downstream products such as rolled products, extrusions, forgings and the finished products.
For stakeholders, be they primary producers, downstream players or government backed research organisations, opportunities for R&D in the aluminium value chain exist in areas listed below:-
Bauxite beneficiation and use of low grade ore: Many of India’s bauxite deposits are depleting whilst the available grade of bauxite has progressively deteriorated over the years. Processing of low-grade bauxite ore poses a challenge since it has implications on cost and productivity. Beneficiation of such ore to raise alumina content and cut the quantum of iron and silica can be a focal area for research.
Bauxite residue valorisation: Alumina production generates huge quantities of red mud referred to as bauxite residue. Its storage and disposal is a ticklish affair. Here, the upstream producers can think of applications of the red mud in cement and brick manufacturing. This will be easy on the environment as it will help save gallons of water.
New product development for specialty alumina: After being refined from bauxite, most of the alumina makes its way to the aluminium smelters for conversion to hot metal. But alumina can have diversified applications as an insulating material and in ceramic refractory, grinding media, flooring tiles, fillers, catalysts and a host of other special applications. Based on the emerging applications of special grade alumina, the alumina producers can promote research efforts to customize alumina grade to fit into such applications. In alumina production, the producers can also focus on productivity improvement, raising the bar on quality and easing the environmental impact.
Cutting energy usage & emissions in smelting: Aluminium is produced by an electrolytic process using a great deal of energy. Also, it is accompanied by carbon-dioxide and fluoride emissions that need to be contained. Aluminium makers need to work on technologies that can monitor and analyze aluminium smelter pot behaviour, develop models for simulation & design and also come out with pot technology to increase current efficiency and cut unwanted energy loss. Some research has already been done in the last few decades to develop high amperage smelting pots that not only improve productivity but also cut capital cost and footprint of new installations.
With its immense recyclable abilities, the focus is on its greater recycling of aluminium. Also, with the focus poised to shift from primary aluminium smelting to secondary smelting, technologies for end of life recycling of aluminium products need to be developed.
The Road Ahead: Consolidate research in downstream, Next Gen applications
After breakthrough technologies in upstream alumina production and smelting, the producers can look at consolidating R&D strategies in the final value chain- downstream. R&D work in the downstream domain can involve development of new materials, development of manufacturing processes, new technologies such as those required for shaping/forming, joining, development of coating and surface technologies, supporting technologies such as mathematical modeling and simulations, analytical technology and technical support.
The aluminium industry in India is on the cusp of exponential growth and, significant capacities are being added by the major producers. To gear up for the future of aluminium applications, these producers need to realign their strategies for innovation in some potentially underplayed areas- transportation (metro and long distance railway coaches), packaging (aerosol cans and pharmaceutical foil packaging), building & construction (light weight bridges), defence (naval ships and surveillance drones) and other emerging uses in lighting systems, solar reflectors and electrical & electronic gadgets. To consolidate, research in new products and applications development, development of energy efficient and environmental friendly and low cost technologies is indispensable. And, with a greater volume of end of life aluminium products getting ploughed back to the consumption pie, recycling technologies also need that extra focus to meet the demands in the future.