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Alcoa Wins Top Honors for Energy-Saving Innovation in Alumina Refining Process

Alcoa’s global refining research and development team, based at the Kwinana Refinery in WA, has been awarded the inaugural AIRG Medal for technology that reduces the company’s energy use.

The Medal recognises outstanding technology management achievement in industrial research and implementation across Australasia and is presented by the Australasian Industrial Research Group (AIRG), the professional body responsible for technological innovation and research and development in public and private companies operating in Australia and New Zealand.

The Technology Delivery Group (TDG), which services Alcoa worldwide, has been honored for innovation that uses naturally occurring microorganisms to consume oxalate – an impurity in the alumina refining process.

Oxalate removal is essential for high alumina quality and refinery productivity.

The technology, known as ‘continuous biological oxalate destruction,’ is a cost effective and environmentally friendly solution to the oxalate challenge.

In addition, like other oxalate destruction technologies, it allows for the oxalate to be converted into a useful material, sodium carbonate.

This is then input back into the alumina refining process and avoids the need for oxalate disposal.

AIRG President Leonie Walsh said winning this Medal requires industrial research that is not only demonstrated but implemented full scale.

"We see a lot of ideas and possibilities, which look like they have potential, but which never actually eventuate, and this is about recognising commercial achievements that are proven.

"Alcoa’s submission unequivocally qualified. The TDG team took effective research management through to demonstration, and then to successful commercialisation. It’s not every day you see that.

"There were several worthy competitors, but there’s no doubt TDG’s submission was the stand out," Walsh said.

TDG Research Chemist Dr. Amanda Tilbury believes it’s the first time a continuous biological removal process has been implemented for this type of industrial application. She said it was more than 10 years in the making and builds on early work started by other alumina producers.

"The alternative oxalate destruction technique is very expensive and energy intensive, so this new process is saving Alcoa millions of dollars while at the same time reducing our energy use. And it provides a platform for future installations in Alcoa refineries around the world," Tilbury said.

Continuous biological oxalate destruction is in operation at Alcoa’s Kwinana Refinery is saving approximately US$1.6 million in energy costs annually. It is currently being implemented at the Pinjarra Refinery, which is expected to save US$1.2 million annually. Alcoa’s Wagerup Refinery is expected to benefit from the technology in the coming years.

Long-term, the process has the potential to consume all of the nearly 200 metric tons of oxalate removed each day by Alcoa’s nine refineries around the world.

Director of Research for Alcoa’s Global Refining System Dr. Ian Harrison said: "To receive an award from an organisation that is essentially made up of my professional peers, for whom I have the highest respect, is extremely rewarding and a great honor."

"The biological destruction process has proven to be extremely robust technology, delivering well above design expectations," said Alcoa Vice President of Technology and Manufacturing, Laurie Stonehouse.

"Our people keep proving over and over that they are an elite group of Australia’s premier scientists and engineers, who continue to set global benchmarks for best practice in their fields and are leaders in their profession — they should be very proud of this achievement."

"The AIRG Executive Committee would like to offer the TDG team our congratulations for an outstanding achievement on technology that’s been executed exceptionally well," said Dr. Greg Smith, member of the AIRG Executive Committee.

This is the third prestigious award for the technology in the past 12 months. In 2010, this technology won the Western Australia Engineering Excellence Award (Environment category) and the Australian Government Engineering Innovation Award at the Australian Engineering Excellence Awards.

Since 1968 TDG has been developing innovative new equipment and processes for cleaner, more efficient production at Alcoa refineries worldwide, and consistently helps to solve environmental challenges through new technology. TDG employs around 80 scientists, engineers, and research and support staff.

AIRG is the professional body for managers responsible for technological innovation and R&D in public and private companies operating in Australia & New Zealand. The AIRG’s role is to improve the quality of research management in those countries, by organising activities which stimulate greater understanding of the effective management of research and development as a force to drive economic, industrial and social activities.

Oxalate is a natural product found in soil and some plants. When decaying plant matter is carried underground via water, some of it sticks to bauxite ore and enters the alumina refining process, where it degrades into oxalate. Considered an impurity, oxalate must be removed for the process to work efficiently and for the alumina to meet specification.

The biological destruction process uses a series of tanks containing warm liquid and naturally occurring bacteria growing on plastic carriers. Oxygen and nutrients are added, and oxalate is introduced as a feed source. The bacteria consume the oxalate. 

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