Just to show how difficult this metals stuff can be

A mention of a minor problem being faced by Glencore in the run up to the float:

It is also facing a multi-million dollar claim relating to the leak of hazardous substances from an alumina refinery in the US Virgin Islands.

I think I know what that\’s likely to be. And yes, it is.

The waste from alumina production is called \”red mud\”. 40 % ish iron oxides, 20% Al2O3, 5% mebbe TiO2 and 5-10% NaOH then lots of minor and trace bits. This is the same stuff that flooded over parts of Hungary last autumn.

No one\’s really got a solution to getting rid of this stuff. The best disposal method is simply to dump it at sea. But people don\’t like you doing that very much.

So it gets collected in lagoons and allowed to weather. Or as in this case, it\’s pressed to extract the liquids and then stacked as dry blocks.

There\’s no real problem with the material itself: while it\’s very fine, and thus dusty, the composition is, well, just rock really. Except for one thing, that NaOH. Otherwise known as caustic soda, or lye. This has a viciously high ph (it can make the whole lot up as far as 13, 13.5). There are numerous tales of animals wading into such lagoons and dissolving.

When it\’s dry, and the dust starts to blow around, it can and will cause eye problems in the surrounding people. There\’s also, in Jamaica, the slight worry that these lagoons are up in the mountains. Nice hurricane and there\’s the possibility that the laggon will overfill and maybe even burst. And when your millions upon million of tonnes of highly caustic slurry are up a mountain…..might be rather worse than the Hungarian thing really.

So, everyone would really rather like a proper solution. And this is something we\’re working on ourselves. We can see it conceptually, can see that each of the component parts of the solution works and are awaiting a decision on some grant money to check whether it really works in practice.

And this is where it gets difficult. For of course, a reasonable source of funding for this sort of work would be those who currently own these lagoons, even perhaps those currently being sued over these lagoons. But they\’re actually the very last people who are interested in funding such work.

For to do so would indicate that they agree that the current storage/disposal methods of red mud are problematic. Yet there are all of these lawsuits (and there are many of them) where they are stoutly maintaining that there\’s no problem at all. You see the problem?

So there\’s this od situation. I someone turned up with a guarnateed, no doubt about it, solution. A real disposal method. All of these companies would be all over that solution. But while it\’s only a possible, a potential, solution, it\’s in their interests to have nothing to do with it. And certainly not to finance the search for a solution.

Weird, innit, other people\’s working lives?

10 thoughts on “Just to show how difficult this metals stuff can be”

  1. 13.5 pH? Ouch. I worked in a tunnel construction project where the groundwater was about 11pH (horrible bay silt all around, it came out a nice bright orange – not sure what is was, maybe the CACO3 content?) and that stuff would raise welts on bare skin. It didn’t help that the thing leaked like a sieve. I washed a pair of jeans after about 4 weeks use on site and they came out as a string bag with a waistband. The rest had just dissolved. I don’t even want to think about two orders of magnitude higher.

    This illustrates one of the real roles of government perhaps? Lawsuits can’t succeed when admitting the existence of promising new technologies is to the deficit of the plaintiffs who would have to commercialise them, so government steps in and requires that they do so. As much as I’m in favour of markets and liberalisation in general, it’s happened before. With both good and bad effects. Landfill is a good example perhaps – who would install a complex system of pipes, drainage controls, and gas capture if they didn’t have to? And how hard would it be to sue them if they didn’t?

  2. We can see it conceptually, can see that each of the component parts of the solution works and are awaiting a decision on some grant money to check whether it really works in practice.

    Of course, you would know better than me Tim (I mostly work with proven technologies) the engineering risks in scaling up from the lab to an industrial plant. Even after a pilot plant is built for $50millionish you can hit problems scaling up after that. I can’t remember the name of the company, but there was an Australian magnesium extraction plant using a novel process that ran into that after they’d tested it in a pilot plant and never got the full scale version working. I think they had spent something like $500 million on it at that stage. In the 90s when that was considered real money of course.

    Doesn’t mean that the basic research shouldn’t be done of course (that’s dirt-cheap by comparison), but sometimes there is a reason for conservatism other than lawsuits.

    Tim adds: Oh, indeed. A number of bits of technology need to work together here. The most important of which being one of the new type of iron furnaces…Hismelt, Ausmlet, ITmk3, something like that. But if they do and their slag is as advertised, then the rest of it is pretty simple.

    But of course, this is why we’re playing with grant money, not investment capital at present. This is much more research rather than production.

  3. Interesting illustration of my scaling up point exeng. Test wells for deep dry rocks geothermal, that is at the 4km mark rather than the few 100m or so you can do in geographically limited locations like Iceland and New Zealand, have had some severe problems. Like having the casing collapse from chemically active water and the well having to be filled with concrete to cap it. Turns out to be a lot harder than just drilling a hole and pumping water through it. Free energy!

    You might have a solution, but I’m willing to bet on-surface treatment is going to be cheaper.

  4. What’s not to like about dumping at sea? The greens should love you for providing all that iron oxide (essential for green plankton) and alkali (combats that ocean acidification they keep on about).

  5. A thought Tim; rather than portraying this to the industry as a redress to a problem they can’t for legal reasons admit to why not portray it as a sustainability operation? Recycling efficiency improvements, expansion into new markets and what not.

    Tim adds: That’s exactly the way we’re ttrying to go. Get to the point where it’s something that pays for itself (ie, no environmental subsidy/payment needed) and we’ve then turned that waste into a valuable ore.

  6. All sorts of waste produced on offshore drilling installations is routinely mixed into a slurry and injected into suitable strata above the oil bearing formation. Don’t see why red mud can’t be disposed of on the same way. Estimated cost would depend on how transportable the red mud is from its storage sites? One well, drilled from a land rig, costs around 5m USD.Thereafter millions of gallons can be injected into a good formation. So if they can move the waste to an injection well somewhere, rather than drill one well for each storage site, then it would be cost effective imo.

  7. I doubt this stuff could be easily transported in the volumes we’re talking about. And I doubt the wells could stand up to it, no matter what else they routinely inject.

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