The aluminium story is a story of energy

Facts: Energy & water

The aluminium story is a story of energy.

Without fuel, it wouldn’t be possible to mine bauxite. Without electricity, the essential reduction of alumina to aluminium wouldn’t be feasible. As you can read on this page, without energy, there would be no aluminium.

So, where is energy most needed, how can it be reduced, and how can water play an important role?

Firstly, mining, refining, reduction, casting, and extrusion  require differing amounts of fuel and electricity:

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From the graph it is clear that the reduction process in smelters uses by far the most electricity, with the current split of electricity sources worldwide as follows:

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The high percentage of self-generated and directly purchased electricity means the aluminium industry’s energy mix doesn’t necessarily match the typical grid mix found in most regions or nations that produce aluminium. The global energy mix of the aluminium industry is as follows:

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The following chart shows the non-aluminium global energy mix. While coal still dominates in both non-aluminium and aluminium industries, there is a clear difference in the use of hydropower, which is far more common in the aluminium industry as it strives to reduce its coal consumption:

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Average split of energy consumption by process in aluminium smelters:

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A new direction
Smelting capacity has grown worldwide, driven predominantly by China and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Because new smelting facilities tend to be more energy-efficient than older facilities, the aluminium industry has reduced energy consumption by 10% over the last 20 years.

New smelting capacity doesn’t only follow where the most cost-effective long-term sources of available energy are; it also enables the development of new power generation. Smelting plants can bring reliable electricity to new areas, which increases distribution capacity and drives economic development.

Another crucial benefit of energy generation in some regions is freshwater production. For example, the Dubal power plant in Dubai utilises its exhaust gases to drive its own thermal water desalination plant, where up to 140 megalitres of freshwater can be produced each day from incoming seawater. This water is used for the smelter’s on-site needs, with the excess being sold to external customers, including Dubai.

“Yes, producing aluminium requires lots of energy. And yes, CO2 is indeed an inherent by-product of the electrolysis process. But to make any sense of aluminium’s impact on the climate, we need to apply a life-cycle perspective on our metal. And what we then realize is that this metal and material has the potential to be climate-positive.”