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Future Trends - Aluminum

Applications for aluminum and aluminum alloys and composites will continue to expand into many sophisticated and technologically advanced products. The trends that have affected the aluminum industry in North America reveal many of the driving forces that will shape the future.

The United States remains the largest producer of primary aluminum metal in the world. However, its position in this industry sector has diminished during the past two decades as China, Australia, and Brazil emerged as major producers in the early 1980s. The factors behind this decline include bauxite supply, energy costs, world supply, regulatory policies, and a general shift in the structure of the North American economy.

Bauxite is the raw material ore from which alumina is refined using the Bayer process. High-grade bauxite deposits have been depleted in the United States and new ones developed overseas, with the result that the United States is now dependent on foreign sources for metallurgical-grade bauxite. Non-bauxite resources for making aluminum are abundant in the United States, but no processes for using these resources are economically competitive with those that use bauxite. Currently, the U.S. imports metallurgical-grade bauxite from Australia, Guinea, and Jamaica. This raw material is processed by refineries in Louisiana, Texas, and Canada using the Bayer Process.

Future advances in cell design will reduce the energy-intensity of primary production while the advent of inert anodes and new cathode designs have the potential to cut emissions of greenhouse gases dramatically. By 2020, technology advances in cell design and materials such as non-consumable anodes will conserve resources, reduce emissions, and eliminate disposal issues. The Aluminum Industry Roadmap projects that far more efficient smelting technology will replace the Hall-Heroult process by 2050.

Energy-related items the Alumina Industry Roadmap identified in 2001 as priority items for future focus were:

  • Alternative Methods to Accelerate Precipitation Rates
  • Conversion of Monohydrate Bauxite to a More Beneficial State
  • Direct Reduction of Bauxite or Other Aluminum Materials
  • Impurity Removal Bauxite and Bauxite Beneficiation
  • Scale Management
  • Waste Heat Recovery

The same forces that have influenced the primary sector also have had an impact on the
producers of secondary semi-fabricated products. The focus continues to be on increasing productivity and value in aluminum products, and much success has been achieved. Significant advances in aluminum processing technologies such as continuous casting are improving aluminum's cost competitiveness. Secondary producers are striving to produce re-melted billets and other high quality shapes that approach the quality of primary aluminum. One such effort, that is expected to be duplicated in the future, is outlined in the attached reprint from 33 MetalProducing magazine.