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Production and refinement for aluminium

See also: Category:Aluminium minerals and List of countries by aluminium production

Bauxite, a major aluminium ore. The red-brown colour is due to the presence of iron minerals.

Aluminium forms strong chemical bonds with oxygen. Compared to most other metals, it is difficult to extract from ore, such as bauxite, due to the high reactivity of aluminium and the high melting point of most of its ores. For example, direct reduction with carbon, as is used to produce iron, is not chemically possible because aluminium is a stronger reducing agent than carbon. Indirect carbothermic reduction can be carried out using carbon and Al2O3, which forms an intermediate Al4C3 and this can further yield aluminium metal at a temperature of 1900C2000 C. This process is still under development; it requires less energy and yields less CO2 than the Hall-Hroult process, the major industrial process for aluminium extraction.[19] Electrolytic smelting of alumina was originally cost-prohibitive in part because of the high melting point of alumina, or aluminium oxide, (about 2,000 C (3,600 F)). Many minerals, however, will dissolve into a second already molten mineral, even if the temperature of the melt is significantly lower than the melting point of the first mineral. Molten cryolite was discovered to dissolve alumina at temperatures significantly lower than the melting point of pure alumina without interfering in the smelting process. In the Hall-Hroult process, alumina is first dissolved into molten cryolite with calcium fluoride and then electrolytically reduced to aluminium at a temperature between 950 and 980 C (1,740 to 1,800 F). Cryolite is a chemical compound of aluminium and sodium fluorides: (Na3AlF6). Although cryolite is found as a mineral in Greenland, its synthetic form is used in the industry. The aluminium oxide itself is obtained by refining bauxite in the Bayer process.

The electrolytic process replaced the W?hler process, which involved the reduction of anhydrous aluminium chloride with potassium. Both of the electrodes used in the electrolysis of aluminium oxide are carbon. Once the refined alumina is dissolved in the electrolyte, it disassociates and its ions are free to move around. The reaction at the cathode is:
Al3+ + 3 e? Al

Here the aluminium ion is being reduced. The aluminium metal then sinks to the bottom and is tapped off, usually cast into large blocks called aluminium billets for further processing.

At the anode, oxygen is formed:

2 O2? O2 + 4 e?

To some extent, the carbon anode is consumed by subsequent reaction with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. The anodes in a reduction cell must therefore be replaced regularly, since they are consumed in the process. The cathodes do erode, mainly due to electrochemical processes and metal movement. After five to ten years, depending on the current used in the electrolysis, a cell has to be rebuilt because of cathode wear.

World production trend of aluminium

Aluminium electrolysis with the Hall-Hroult process consumes a lot of energy, but alternative processes were always found to be less viable economically and/or ecologically. The worldwide average specific energy consumption is approximately 150.5 kilowatt-hours per kilogram of aluminium produced (52 to 56 MJ/kg). The most modern smelters achieve approximately 12.8 kWh/kg (46.1 MJ/kg). (Compare this to the heat of reaction, 31 MJ/kg, and the Gibbs free energy of reaction, 29 MJ/kg.) Reduction line currents for older technologies are typically 100 to 200 kiloamperes; state-of-the-art smelters operate at about 350 kA. Trials have been reported with 500 kA cells.[citation needed]

The Hall-Heroult process produces aluminium with a purity of above 99%. Further purification can be done by the Hoope process. The process involves the electrolysis of molten aluminium with a sodium, barium and aluminium fluoride electrolyte. The resulting aluminium has a purity of 99.99%.[20][21]

Electric power represents about 20% to 40% of the cost of producing aluminium, depending on the location of the smelter. Aluminium production consumes roughly 5% of electricity generated in the U.S.[22] Smelters tend to be situated where electric power is both plentiful and inexpensive, such as the United Arab Emirates with excess natural gas supplies and Iceland and Norway with energy generated from renewable sources. The world's largest smelters of alumina are People's Republic of China, Russia, and Quebec and British Columbia in Canada.[22][23][24]

Aluminium spot price 1987 2012

In 2005, the People's Republic of China was the top producer of aluminium with almost a one-fifth world share, followed by Russia, Canada, and the USA, reports the British Geological Survey.

Over the last 50 years, Australia has become a major producer of bauxite ore and a major producer and exporter of alumina (before being overtaken by China in 2007).[23][25] Australia produced 68 million tonnes of bauxite in 2010. The Australian deposits have some refining problems, some being high in silica, but have the advantage of being shallow and relatively easy to mine.[26]