Orbite launching into alumina market

Acid process yields high-purity product and no red mud

By Alain Castonguay

Orbite Aluminae Inc.’s processing plant is under construction near Grand-Vallée, Quebec, and is slated for completion by the end of 2012 | Courtesy of Orbite Aluminae Inc.

Orbite Aluminae Inc. has big ambitions for its argillite deposit, located near Grande-Vallée, in Gaspésie, Quebec. Besides extracting and processing alumina, Orbite plans to exploit the site’s potential for other metals and rare earth elements. And the technology Orbite has developed promises an alternative that avoids the toxic red mud problem, which has been a thorn in the side of the aluminum industry for decades. In fact, Orbite has the technology to treat red mud as well.

Since the 1880s, the Bayer process has been used to extract alumina from bauxite ore. The presence of silicon in bauxite complicates alumina extraction, yielding two parts of red mud to one part alumina as a by-product. It is such a large problem that the quantity of red mud stored in holding ponds near processing plants worldwide is estimated at three billion tonnes. “Some plants are close to being shut down because their red mud ponds are at maximum capacity,” explains Richard Boudreault, president, CEO and director of Orbite Aluminae. He is pleased to say his argillite mine will not add to that stockpile.

Boudreault’s company first processed alumina with its new technique at its pilot plant in Cap-Chat in early 2011, and expansion of the plant is now underway. Much of the equipment, including process vessels and control systems, has been delivered and structural work is nearing completion. The company hopes to have the capacity to produce one to three tonnes of high-purity alumina (HPA) per day by the end of 2012, and five tonnes per day by 2013. Once high-purity ­alumina ­production is generating revenue, the company will build a 7,000-tonne-per-day smelting grade alumina ­facility in order to achieve full ­production.

In late June, the company ann- ounced the signing of a memorandum of ­­under­standing with Indian aluminum giant Nalco, the third largest aluminum producer in the world. Nalco plans to evaluate the use of Orbite’s technology to process both its ore and red mud. If all goes well for Orbite, Nalco could be a big help when it comes time to finance the smelting grade alumina facility.

Argillite requires new process

“Our process works the other way around from the Bayer process,” says Boudreault. “Ours is an acid process that requires special containers. The red mud holding ponds are formed by a basic process, with a pH of 13. Our technology consists of taking an acid, diluting each of the products, and separating these products one by one. In the Bayer process, on the other hand, you grind up all the materials at one pH, give them time to break down – to be digested – then try to separate them, which is more difficult to accomplish.”

Orbite’s process demands strict control of pH levels, and today’s improved digital tools provide for better monitoring. In addition, the equipment used during extraction needs to have a glass lining to limit corrosion due to the acidity of the process. “This technology is a relatively recent development in the field of mining,” explains Boudreault.

With Orbite’s process, it is possible to recover the silicon dioxide, magnesium oxide, hematite and rare earth elements as by-products. Solid residues can be treated to make them chemically neutral; the resulting clay can then be used to make bricks or roofing tiles.

Acid recycling, the central element of the process, makes it more cost-effective than the traditional Bayer method, according to Boudreault. Like the rest of the process, the acid-recycling loop also relies on the very latest technological developments. Orbite produces high-purity alumina, with a market value of $50 to $100 per kilogram, compared to $300 per tonne for smelter-grade alumina. HPA is used in the production of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and computer screens, for example.

Their process will also enable Orbite to eventually produce smelter-grade alumina (SGA), which is sold to fabricating plants. By extracting this alumina at a lower cost, and without the red mud pollution of typical operations, Orbite hopes to blaze a new trail in the fiercely competitive world of aluminum production. Boudreault says the company has plans to improve the HPA extraction process to increase its purity from 99.99 per cent to 99.9999 per cent, thus giving the product additional added value.

Creating value

In addition to Nalco, the Quebec-based company also reached a memorandum of understanding with Rusal, the world’s largest aluminum producer, to help build its planned smelting-grade alumina facility in Gaspésie – a project that is expected to cost $500 million. The location of the plant has not yet been determined, but it is slated to be near ­Grande-Vallée or Murdochville.

In addition to the TSX, Boudreault has registered Orbite on the OTCQX in New York, to gain access to a broader capital market. “American investors see us as a green technology company, and that is something that is not yet as highly sought-after in Canada,” points out Boudreault. “The mining sector is often still associated with environmental problems, so our approach also seeks to change this perception. In the United States, there is a better understanding of our process, and what’s more, there are funds available that focus on the clean technology industry. This will help us grow the company and increase the share value for stockholders.”

According to the preliminary assessment conducted by Genivar, the value of ore in Orbite’s deposit is estimated at $7 billion. The deposit also includes rare earth elements and rare metals, such as scandium. “When you combine scandium with aluminum, you get an alloy that is almost as sturdy as titanium, which means, for example, that you can reduce the weight of airplanes by 15 per cent to 20 per cent,” Boudreault says. “This is another very significant environmental advantage.”

The process developed by Orbite will also mean reductions in the cost of extracting heavy rare earth elements. “As a greater volume of rarer commodities becomes available,” Boudreault believes, “prices will go down. It will then be easier to develop new products.”

Translated by Mark Stout

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