Innovation is a key to ensuring our resources and related industries can remain economically productive and sustainable in a changing world. TOM KENCHINGTON talks with science leaders about such innovation and emerging opportunities.

Article from resourceful: Issue 8, November 2015

Innovation in minerals has historically focused on overcoming technical challenges to reduce costs or increase production and safety.

During the boom years, efforts were aimed at increasing production as a pathway to profit. Australia was well positioned to deliver and this underpinned our economy and helped us buck trends during the global financial crisis.

Demand for our minerals remains strong as we continue into the 'Asian century'. Increasingly, innovation is a key to helping Australia and the world deal with growing resource and material demands and the competitive marketplace.

As high prices fade, there is a renewed focus on innovation that can drive resource productivity - improving the economic output per unit of natural resource input (including raw materials, energy and water).

Even in the current marketplace, mineral resources are our largest and most valuable exports and there is great potential in innovation that produces gains that can be multiplied across a large industry.

We are a leading producer of bauxite as a source of alumina, or aluminium oxide. An alternative approach to bauxite processing that extracts valuable minerals and reduces environmental wastes represents a significant opportunity for Australia, according to CSIRO Mineral Resources sustainable process engineering leader, Dr Mark Cooksey.

"The concept is to chlorinate the bauxite and separate the main chlorides. Then metals such as aluminium, silicon and titanium can be recovered from their respective chlorides via known processes, for example aluminium by electrolysis of aluminium chloride," he says.

Initial research indicates that the economics of producing aluminium using the bauxite chlorination process would be similar to the conventional Bayer/Hall-Héroult process. However, recovery of the additional metals would make the process economically attractive. Furthermore, it would eliminate the production of red
mud waste, increasing resource efficiency.

For more than a century, the Bayer process has been the principal method for extracting alumina from bauxite, which is crushed and milled, then digested with a hot sodium hydroxide solution under pressure.

The alumina is dissolved and separated from the insolubles, and as much sodium hydroxide as possible is recovered for recycling. But the insolubles, mainly iron, silicon and titanium that are the other key components of bauxite are mostly discarded in large volume as part of the highly alkaline 'red mud' waste.

The Bayer process is less efficient at producing alumina from bauxite with high silicon content, as some of the aluminium (and sodium hydroxide) is lost in the form of sodium aluminium silicate, which is discarded as part of the red mud.

Importantly for Australia, the bauxite chlorination process would not be adversely affected by the high silicon content of our bauxite, which means that a number of large bauxite deposits that are currently marginal or unfeasible might become attractive to produce.

The idea of bauxite chlorination has been known for many decades, but interest waned when efforts to commercialise aluminium chloride electrolysis failed in the 1970s.

"We think the technical challenges of aluminium chloride electrolysis can be overcome, and the economics improve when the chloride is produced directly from bauxite, rather than by chlorinating alumina produced by the Bayer process," says Dr Cooksey.

The other key technical challenge for bauxite chlorination is to separate the iron chloride and aluminium chloride.

Where it remains economically viable to store vast amounts of red mud, the drive to improve efficiency and minimise waste, may not been strong.

The process will take further investment to prove it an industrial scale, but preliminary research is favourable.

Growing recognition of the benefits of energy productivity have introduced an additional focus on resource productivity, which is gaining momentum at an international level according to Associate Professor Damien Giurco, Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

"Coupling energy and resource productivity is a clear win-win. The future opportunity to be realised exceeds $20 billion in the current decade alone," he says.

Dr Giurco leads the Wealth from Waste Cluster, which is funded by the CSIRO Flagship Collaboration Fund and university partners at UTS, Monash, Yale, Swinburne and The University of Queensland.

The project seeks to analyse opportunities to increase the industrial value of resources by recycling and reusing them, as well as identifying political and societal barriers that could stand in the way of implementation.

The ISF recently released its Action agenda for resource productivity and innovation: opportunities for Australia in the circular economy, which seeks to strengthen impact from the Wealth from Waste Cluster and put the issues of resource productivity and innovation on the national agenda.

"A fresh vision beyond the dig-more sell-more mentality is needed for resources in Australia. Both government and industry recognise the importance of collaboration and universities and CSIRO have a key leadership role to play in bringing stakeholders together to foster and align change," says Associate Professor Giurco.

View of esearcher, looking thorugh a window into an enclosed lab glove box, holding titanium object.

3D printing offers the opportunity to produce highly specialised or customised products direct from the metal ore feedstocks

When innovation can yield immediate economic and business benefits as well as reducing waste, many of these social and political barriers are non-existent.

Metal 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM), offers new business opportunities while also increasing process and resource productivity.

AM allows finished, or near-finished products to be fabricated directly from metal powder feed, cutting out a number of intermediate steps, according to Dr Ivan Cole from CSIRO Manufacturing.

"What we're about is new ways of producing things from ore. We want to be able to develop new ways to make metal powders directly from ore which can be passed to a 3D printer to a final metal component. The advantage of this process is that we can cut out a huge number of stages. We no longer have to produce billet, then sheet product, then melt and cast it to turn it into a component," he says.

CSIRO and its partners are working on new methods for processing ore directly into powder to use as feed stock and other process innovations, but perhaps the most exciting area of innovation lies in developing expertise in AM design.

CSIRO Manufacturing recently opened Lab22 – named after titanium's position in the periodic table – to allow interested companies to test the viability of product ideas without the upfront cost of investing in their own plant. Around 10 companies are currently working with CSIRO’s AM design experts, testing product designs and business proposals that could open up new markets and opportunities.

"One of the futures for Australian industry is developing highly specific products for production in low runs. Rather than producing hundreds of thousands of units, we have a relatively efficient way of producing one to two hundred of these components for very specific industry applications which intrinsically require a limited run. Producers make money by being specific and high value," says Dr Cole.

The increasing focus on resource productivity opens up many avenues for innovation. As social and political will continues to grow, CSIRO will keep working with industry, research and government partners to develop new ways of meeting the future challenges 

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