Resource Snapshot (3): Aluminium
The World Resources Forum Secretariat continues the series “Resource Snapshots” with aluminium. You can learn in less than 2 minutes the key issues of this resource.
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Applications and use
In the car industry aluminium plays a big role as it can reduce the vehicle’s weight and energy consumption, but enlarge the load capacity due to its light weight. It is also applied in production of trains, aircraft and ships. Aluminium is a good conductor of electricity and heat, in relation to its weight even better than copper, therefore it is important in power transmission[fn]European Aluminium Association (2011): Applications. Online: http://www.eaa.net/en/applications/ (last access: 19.05.2011).[/fn]. Due to its characteristics such as light weight, durability, recyclability and resistance to corrosion aluminium is also applied in packaging and building[fn]U.S. Geological Survey (2011): Minerals Information – Aluminum. Online: http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/aluminum/ (last access: 07.06.2011).[/fn].
Aluminium is one of the most abundant elements on earth, it does not occur alone but in compounds with other minerals. China is the lead country, with almost one third of worldwide aluminium production, followed by Russia and Canada[fn]British Geological Survey (2011): World Mineral Production. Online: http://www.bgs.ac.uk/mineralsuk/statistics/worldArchive.html (last access: 05.08.2011). [/fn]. One of the most important raw materials in aluminium production is bauxite with an averaged alumina (aluminium oxide) percentage of 41 percent[fn]International Aluminium Institute (2008): Fourth Sustainable Bauxite Mining Report IV. Online: http://www.world-aluminium.org/cache/fl0000292.pdf (last access: 07.06.2011). [/fn].
According to the UNEP aluminium reserves will last at least about 200 years at current production and consumption[fn]UNEP (2011): Manufacturing – Investing in energy and resource efficiency. Online: http://www.unep.org/greeneconomy/Portals/88/documents/ger/GER_7_Manufacturing.pdf (last access: 07.06.2011). [/fn]. Guinea holds the largest bauxite reserves with 7,400 million tons, followed by Australia with 6,200 million tons and Vietnam, Jamaica and Brazil (all about 2,000 million tons)[fn]British Geological Survey (2011): World Mineral Production. Online: http://www.bgs.ac.uk/mineralsuk/statistics/worldArchive.html (last access: 05.08.2011). [/fn]. Recycling is an important component in aluminium industry; 2.7 million tons have been recycled from scrap in 2010[fn]U.S. Geological Survey (2011): Mineral Commodity Summaries – Aluminum. Online: http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/aluminum/mcs-2011-alumi.pdf (last access: 07.06.2011). [/fn].
Recent price developments
From 1986 until 2006 the aluminium price did not rise over 2,000 $ per ton with an exception in 1988 where the average price lay at 2,547 $ per ton and with 3,578 $ per ton in June the highest price from 1986 until today was reached. Since 2006 the price is usually over 2,000 $ per ton, although in 2009 the price was at 1,669 $ per ton on average[fn]Index Mundi (2011): Aluminum Monthly Price. Online: http://www.indexmundi.com/commodities/?commodity=aluminum&months=300 (last access: 25.05.2011). [/fn].
One of the most important environmental impacts in the aluminium industry is the greenhouse gas emission caused by the high energy consumption in primary production. In the smelting process one ton of aluminium produces 1.6 tons CO2 at average and additionally an amount of PFCs (perfluorocarbons) that equals one ton of carbon dioxide[fn]International Aluminium Institute (2011): Greenhouse gases. Online: http://www.world-aluminium.org/Sustainability/Environmental+Issues/Greenhouse+gases (last access: 07.06.2011).[/fn]. Another gas emitted from smelters is sulphur dioxide which is one of the major causes for acid rain[fn]Environmental Literacy Council (2008): Aluminium. Online: http://www.enviroliteracy.org/article.php/1013.html (last access: 19.05.2011).[/fn]. In October 2010 a devastating aluminium accident happened in Hungary. A dam from a red mud lake broke down and about one million cubic meters of the toxic sludge were spilled. The tide flooded three villages and left behind a toxic waste with a depth up to 2.5 meters in some places[fn]The Telegraph (2010): Hungary threatened by ‘ecological catastrophe’ as toxic sludge escapes factory. Online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/hungary/8043969/Hungary-threatened-by-ecological-catastrophe-as-toxic-sludge-escapes-factory.html (last access: 24.05.2011).[/fn].
In Brazilian Amazonia the aluminium industry causes several problems. To supply the aluminium industry with sufficient energy, dams are being constructed. Often indigenous people have to move away due to the constructions. Furthermore increased immigration to Amazonian cities is recorded which leads to delinquency since there are not enough jobs[fn]Schäfer, S.; Studte, M. (2005): Aluminiumproduktion und Zivilgesellschaft in Brasilien [Aluminiumproduction and civil society in Brazil]. Online: http://aluwatch.net/documents/1/ALU_U_ZIVIL.pdf (last access: 24.05.2011).[/fn].
Neither aluminium reserves nor its price require alternatives but the energy use in production does. Aluminium production accounts for 3 percent of CO2 emissions within industry. Therefore fossil fuels should be substituted for renewable energy sources (e.g. hydro power)[fn]Allwood, J.M.; Cullen, J.M. (2009): Steel, aluminium and carbon – alternative strategies for meeting the 2050 carbon emission targets. Online: http://www.lcmp.eng.cam.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/allwood-and-cullen-r09-davos.pdf (last access: 18.05.2011).[/fn]. In packaging alternatives can be plastic, glass, steel or paper. As far as transportation is concerned materials such as steel, magnesium and titanium can substitute for aluminium[fn]U.S. Geological Survey (2011): Mineral Commodity Summaries – Aluminum. Online: http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/aluminum/mcs-2011-alumi.pdf (last access: 07.06.2011). [/fn].
As mentioned before aluminium reserves are expected to last another 200 years, therefore there is no fear of scarcity at the moment. One issue that gives concern is the high energy consumption in aluminium production, especially since power costs are rising. Price forecasts estimate that aluminium prices might climb up to 2,900 $ per ton in 2012[fn]Financial Times (2011): Base metals – the sharp rise in the cost of energy has fuelled aluminium prices. Online: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d36e029e-84cf-11e0-afcb-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1NLfmnEZm (last access: 07.06.2011). [/fn].
WRF Resource Snapshot (3) has been compiled by Riccarda Sutter. She would greatly appreciate corrections, suggestions or other remarks, which could improve this document. Suggestions for which other resources to choose are also welcome. Riccarda can be reached at email@example.com.