Orbite Aluminae solves big red Problems while treading toward the Future of Mining
The discovery of metals and raw materials and the ways to extract and combine them in alloys is one of the pillars of human evolution, serving as the catalyst to human development. Mining is synonymous with civilization in the same way that is agriculture; together these disciplines have built empires and civilizations. Mining has also built financial empires and in most of the world’s markets, mining firms continue to be among the main drivers of stock indices in all continents. Mining and the extraction of raw materials has typically relied on geology as its core science, guiding the prospecting and extraction activities. However, as concerns over environmental degradation – from mining byproducts or tailings – have intensified in the past decades, rightfully or opportunistically exploited by social and environmental groups in developed and developing countries, the mining industry has gathered many detractors. Regardless of the validity of the detractors’ claims, mining as an activity requires considerable capital and companies are under pressure from investors to deliver.
The gambling and pioneer spirit element that led to the gold rush in the Americas and the massive colonial mines of Africa in the 19th century have long lost their viability and practicability. In response, mining has become ever more scientific, combining efforts with other disciplines such as chemistry to maximize yields, grades, purities while reducing environmental impact. Moreover, because of the costs involved in brining a mining project to production, it has become more desirable to develop multiple, rather than single, commodities. Projects that can for example lead to the production of phosphate, uranium and rare earths are more attractive than a solely focused uranium property; similarly, projects that focus on aluminum are much more efficient when they can offer by-products from bauxite.
Chemistry offers more solutions than geology in this regard and Orbite Aluminae is one of the pace setters in this emerging evolution of mining itself. Orbite will produce a series of market ready metals from the treatment of red mud-the highly toxic waste that results from the production of alumina. Apart from the promising commercial applications that can be achieved through this method, perhaps more importantly, the treatment of red mud solves the major problem of dealing with this extremely toxic material. Such is the environmental potential that last February the French group Veolia signed a partnership with Orbite that will lead to the first treatment plant red mud. In the world there is no less than 3 billion tons of red mud; industrial states have no idea what to do with it and how to deal with it. Enter Orbite, the metal industry’s equivalent of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ character of ‘Mr. Wolf’ and Mr. Wolf “solves problems”.
Orbite and Veolia, an environmental technology giant with over 300,000 employees worldwide, have come together to solve the red mud problem. The solution rests in processing, and developing valuable resources hidden in the red mud. The first commercial results of this collaboration are expected to be released in the third quarter of 2013. Orbite has developed a patented process, which thanks to the ability to control acidity, or Ph, using a sort of ‘acidity cruise control’ treats the red mud with hydrochloric acid solution. This allows for the separation of various metals non-leachable elements such as silica or titanium oxide, recovered as chlorides and then easily separated, guaranteeing enough purity to be brought to market. In view of rising global demand for aluminum, Veolia and Orbite believe that this process should experience strong growth. Alumina, until recently, has been extracted from bauxite using the Bayer process. This method certainly yields aluminum but it leaves behind large and ever more unsustainable quantities of red mud in a ratio of 2:1 in the best of cases: a ton of alumina generates two tons of red mud. Countries like China faced with the need to store large amounts of red mud have already shown interest in the technology and Orbite has earned patents in China and Russia for its process. Evidently, Canada, the United States, Brazil, Germany and Australia are also candidates. Orbite has access to bauxite and its own aluminous 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 the Bayer method.
Last August, Orbite Aluminae already managed to extract samples for commercially valuable heavy rare earth oxides, gallium and scandium from its Grande-Vallee aluminous deposits in Quebec using its patented technologies. 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.