Alumina Basics

  Next

What is alumina?

Alumina is aluminium oxide (Al203) and is usually produced as a white crystalline powder.

Over 94% of all alumina is used to produce primary aluminum metal in electrolytic aluminum smelters. The remaining alumina is used in a variety of other applications including refractories, abrasives, chemicals, fillers and even cosmetics.

Source: Hydro Photo Rosangela Aguiar

In 1887 Carl Josef Bayer invented the ‘Bayer process’ which still today is the mainstay of alumina production. The Bayer process uses concentrated caustic solutions (liquor) to dissolve naturally occurring aluminium hydroxy-oxides (Al2O3.H2O or Al2O3.3H2O) from bauxites and then re-precipitate them as nearly pure aluminium tri-hydroxy-oxide (Al2O3.3H2O known ‘hydrate’ or ‘tri-hydrate’). The tri-hydrate is then heated (‘calcined’) to ~1000°C to remove the chemically bound water, leaving highly purified Al203.

The almost synchronous developments of the Hall-Héroult process for primary aluminium smelting in 1886 and the Bayer process in 1887 enabled the modern aluminum industry; taking aluminium from being a rare and expensive metal to its current commodity status.

Production & Trade

Approximately 107 million tonnes of alumina was produced in 2013, with 2013 world capacity at this time estimated at 131 million tonnes.

China is the largest producer. Producing over 49 million tonnes in 2013, it is nearly three times as large as the #2 producer, Australia, at 22 million tonnes and nearly four times larger than South America, the third largest producer at 13 million tonnes.Together these three countries make up 79% of the worlds production. China’s ascendency to the #1 producer position has only occurred in the last 10 years – through building the equivalent of nearly all of the rest of the world’s capacity in that time. China is however still net importer of alumina – the growth of its primary aluminium business has been even faster.

Australia and South America remain the largest exporting regions for alumina. All other regions are net importers. The Middle East is the largest sink for exported alumina due to its large primary aluminium production and very small refining industry. Approximately 26% of all alumina produced is traded on a regional basis.

Outlook

In the short to medium term, continued rapid growth in China, and Indonesia’s 2014 banning of bauxite exports is forecast to put pressure on its China’s domestic bauxite reserves and domestic refining industry. Unless Indonesia relaxes its ban this will create a strong demand for other sources of bauxite imports to China (other than Indonesia) and stronger demand for alumina imports to China.

Thus the alumina industry may well have a turbulent period in the short-medium term, but it is underpinned by continued steady demand in the longer term due to future primary aluminium demand growth.