Orbite Aluminae (TSX: ORT) and Veolia Environmental, a France based multinational specializing in waste management with projects all over the world has signed a joint agreement for the treatment and recycling of the ‘red mud’ from alumina production, including the construction of a facility to treat red sludge treatment process by Orbite. The strategy is then for both companies to offer this service to the aluminum industry. There is considerable demand for this technology, considering that there are an estimated three billion tons of untreated red mud stocks in the world. Every ton of alumina that is produced using current methods leaves behind two tons of highly toxic red mud residue. Typically, bauxite has been refined to produce alumina using the Bayer process, which ‘digests’ the bauxite using a solution sodium hydroxide, converting aluminum oxide (‘alumina’) ore to sodium aluminate leaving behind other non-dissolved components. Further processing to remove impurities produces a solid mixture known as red mud. The ‘mud’ or sludge, which is caustic, is loaded with such minerals as titanium oxide, iron oxide, aluminum oxide, silicon and rare earths.
Current methods to treat the red mud are complex and inefficient and it is cheaper for producers prefer to store the red mud in special containers, which, however, only partially address the risks of spillage and pollution as attested by the spillage of red mud waste in Hungary in 2010 affecting seven communities. Orbite’s process makes it profitable to be environmentally responsible, offering aluminum producers a process that allows them to profit from the red mud itself, heretofore considered a major environmental nuisance. Orbite has its own bauxite and clay deposits and its process extracts alumina and rare earths and it is able to generate various rare earth elements – as well as alumina from the aluminous clay and bauxite essentially resulting far more efficient and economical than any currently used (Bayer) method.
Orbite is essentially at the leading edge of what is nothing short of a revolution in the way aluminum is produced. The process has already yielded good results on a pilot scale and Orbite has patented the process in various countries including the USA and China. A plant to produce alumina through the new process started production in Quebec last January. Where are earths are concerned, the Orbite process represents a breakthrough in the effort to wrestle China’s current monopoly in rare earth extraction and processing. Australia, Canada and the United States have certainly increased the development of their respective rare earths industries; however, Orbite offers an interesting alternative.
Orbite has already extracted samples for commercially valuable heavy rare earth oxides, gallium and scandium from its Grande-Vallee aluminous deposits in Quebec. Moreover, thanks to its patented and pending patents, Orbite could offer its technology to third parties in the next few years as well as produce its own inventories. Orbite’s advantage over traditional rare earths mining and processing methods is that it averts the problem of the low concentration in a given mineral to make extraction non-commercially viable. Orbite’s technology enables low-cost extraction of rare earths and metals in the context of the ‘environmentally responsible’ aluminum production. Orbite observed a 22% proportion of heavy rare earths in the total amount of rare earth elements from its Grande-Vallee aluminous sludge, also noting the presence of scandium-highly in demand in the aerospace sector. Orbite is confident that its rare earth extraction process has considerable commercial potential and that it would likely be the first such method used in North America whereby aluminum production can take place in parallel to the extraction and separation of heavy rare earths.
Orbite’s red mud derived rare earths, meanwhile, add credibility to news that Jamaica is ready to start experimenting rare earth extraction from its naturally occurring red mud thanks to technical assistance from Japan. The timing of the news, coinciding with a flare-up in Sino-Japanese relations, warranted some skepticism; however, Orbite’s technology suggests that the Jamaica rare earth story has some value even if the country’s mining minister Philip Paulwell should not entertain dreams of new income sources and a new rare-earth fueled future for Jamaica just yet.
Nippon Light Metal (NLM) has conducted research, showing high concentrations of rare earth elements in the red mud soils of Jamaica and has expressed an interest in investing more money in exploration, so far up to USD 3 million. While, Jamaica will not become a rare earth power overnight – ‘Captain Morgan’ rum need not worry about being overshadowed as the island nation’s most popular product – the Orbite technology has already proven that the red mud can yield rare earths. Indeed, the red mud was discovered as a result of the production of bauxite (aluminum ore) and aluminum earns more than half of Jamaica’s export revenue. Just as in the Orbite case, the rare earths have been identified in the mud deposits that occur in the processing of alumina.
Today, Nippon Light Metals has officially started work at the red mud pilot plant on the grounds of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI) in Hope Gardens, St. Andrew. The research aims to move rare earths extraction from the laboratory to a pilot plant scale in hopes of achieving the right economics for commercial production. Orbite is at a more advanced level and it is not hard to imagine a future collaboration between the Quebec based Company, JBI and NLM.