Think-tank chooses to focus on aluminium industry sustainability

17 October, 2006

Highlighting the role of research in keeping Australia’s aluminium industry sustainable – economically as well as environmentally – was the focus of a two-day industry forum that took place in Melbourne recently.

The forum provided an opportunity for key people from industry, the research community and government to discuss the role of innovation in helping Australian producers compete in an increasingly competitive global market.

Australia is the world’s leading producer of bauxite and alumina, and the fifth largest producer of primary aluminium metal.

The aluminium industry is a significant contributor to the economy, with exports valued at around $4 billion. Metal production from Australia's six smelters is at recorded levels.

However, the world scene is changing fast, with the installation of new primary aluminium production capacity in China, the Middle East and Russia.

“Energy is a major constraint to expanding aluminium production capacity,” says Dr Raj Rajakumar, Director of Light Metals Flagship, which is hosting the forum.

“Electricity accounts for an estimated 28 per cent of smelter operating costs. For producers in Australia, innovation is the key to remaining sustainable and globally competitive.

“One of the goals of the Light Metals Flagship is to work with industry in reducing the energy required to produce aluminium by 30 per cent over the coming decade.”

Peter Herd, Technical Superintendent, Tomago Aluminium, says that energy costs and availability are just a few of the challenges facing the Australian industry.

“As new overseas capacity comes on line, it normally does so with reduced operating costs,” he says. “How can Australian producers reduce their costs to compete with these new smelters so that we are not priced out of operation?

“We also need to deal with greenhouse gas emissions and the disposal of the waste streams generated by a smelter. How can we cost-effectively extract valuable products from waste streams and reduce the overall cost of processing waste products?

“We have to do more with what we have – for example, minimising impurities in raw materials and extracting maximum value from every unit of a raw material.

“Technology can help in all these areas. It will help us to finely tune the production process to reduce the use of raw materials.

“We need to utilise this by being more innovative and precise in our operations to compete with regions that have lower labour costs.”“It will also enable us to develop processes to recover waste energy and value from waste streams.

“It will allow us to use more marginal raw materials, and reduce the impact of ‘tramp’ elements on finished product or emission quality.”

Herd adds that while labour costs in Australia are high compared with competitors, we have a well-educated labour force.

“We need to utilise this by being more innovative and precise in our operations to compete with regions that have lower labour costs."

“Bringing researchers and industry representatives together through events like this will allow CSIRO and universities to identify gaps in current research capabilities and enable industry to identify areas where we can employ the results of research.”

The Light Metals Flagship is one of six National Research Flagships established by CSIRO to mobilise Australia’s R&D resources in areas of strategic national importance – water, energy, food, preventative health, oceans and light metals.

The Flagship’s research program covers minerals concentration, metal production and component manufacturing for aluminium/alumina, magnesium and titanium. Market growth for these metals is more rapid than most materials, driven by the need for lighter and stronger components, for example, in more fuel-efficient cars.