The inaugural conference of the newly minted International Bauxite, Alumina & Aluminium Society recently concluded in Nagpur, India, and several apparently noteworthy developments came out of that meeting.

The IBAAS, from what I recall, is new and was established earlier this year. The group’s website indicates that it was launched with a particular focus on supporting businesses and research in Asia. IBAAS notes the competitive and regulatory challenges to the field that underlined the society’s formation:

“The bauxite, alumina and aluminium industry is developing at a fairly good pace in the world and spectacular growth is visible in China, India and Brazil. Several other countries like Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Guinea are proposing to invest huge amounts into development of the vast resources of Bauxite.

While the downstream industry is facing the challenge of technology upgradation and high investment costs, the upstream industry is constantly under the threat of ever-changing regulatory laws with respect to mining, social development and technology, besides the need for a huge investment in infrastructure for the mining, refining and smelting operations.

It is strongly felt that an organization is specifically needed to focus on these issues and work in the field of bauxite geology, mining, beneficiation, alumina refining and aluminum smelting technology particularly in Asian region. A group of leading scientists, engineers, managers and experts in this line have set up a registered society IBAAS to promote this industry in this part of the world.”

IBAAS says it is initially giving special attention to India, China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and UAE, and hopes eventually to expand to the BRIC nations.

The group’s first meeting, held with support from over 70 institutions and businesses (including many known well in the ceramics community, such as Ace Calderys, Almatis, Aluchem, Bharat Heavy Electrical Ltd., Central Glass & Ceramic Research Institute, IFGL Bioceramics Ltd., Jyoti Ceramics, Panalytical, Rio Tinto, Saint Gobain, SKG Refractories and The Indian Ceramic Society) was cosponsored by the Jawaharlal Nehru Aluminium Research Development and Design Centre, and was held December 3-5.

Besides technical papers in scientific sessions, the conference had special sessions on “processing innovations in aluminum ceramics” and “new and emerging application of alumina ceramics.” The meeting seems to have gotten quite a bit of publicity in India, and the Times of India reported that the symposium also served as a platform for researchers and industry “to work out plans for metallurgical bauxite and special alumina products.”

Now, it’s hard to report on a conference such as this from afar, but several developments announced at the meeting are worth noting.

The first comes from the Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute, which says it has developed a process to convert extremely inferior grade bauxite into refractory grade bauxite. CGCRI says its process removes impurities, such as calcium oxide, titanium oxide and iron oxide, from bauxite. The institute says it uses certain natural materials that selectively absorb these impurities and effectively increases the melting point to 1,600°C.

In an interview with the Times, CGCRI’s Anup Ghosh says, “We have converted the low-melting-point phase bauxite into high-temperature phase. This can be used even in steel melting process.” Institute leaders report that they have received industrial support to scale up the technology to at least one-ton capacity. One clear goal is to help India’s industries reduce the amount of refractory-grade bauxite it must import from China and other countries.

Separately, CGCRI also announced that it has succeeded in using “extremely inferior grade” bauxite to make extremely hard ceramic tiles. “The hardness has been brought by blending other industrial wastes like fly ash and iron ore tailings to make the new ceramic. It can be used as a lining in hoppers and chutes used in steel plants and coal washeries. It helps prevent corrosion and abrasion,” Swapan Kumar Das, chief scientist at refractories division in CGCRI, explains to the newspaper.

CGCRI has a history of working with alumina and also been active in researching its use in bioceramic applications, ceramic membranes and coated ceramic tubing.

Another meeting development drew considerable interest, if for no other reason than it may avoid some of the bauxite shortage and price jumps that have plagued the worldwide refractory industry in recent years. A Canadian company, Orbite Aluminae Inc., announced at the IBAAS conference that it has pioneered an unconventional source of alumina for the efficient production of aluminum. Again according to a story in the Times, OAI says that instead of using bauxite, it can efficiently use aluminous clay or clay rich in alumina and silica to produce extremely pure alumina. The company says its methods also are environmentally friendly.

The Times piece used words like “new” and “revolutionary” to describe OLI’s technology. I am not too convinced that it is new, and the company admits that much of its proprietary process builds on work done in 2004-2007. Also, it is probably much too early to judge whether it delivers a revolution. Nevertheless, OLI says it succeeded for the first time in achieving a one-ton-per-day production rate of purified alumina in early 2011. That was apparently on a prototype-production basis, but the company says that it will launch a one-ton-per-day plant in January 2013 in Quebec. OLI says this alumina initially will be used in LED production, not aluminum.

Besides bauxite, OLI says it can process red mud and fly ash, and brags that the method also generates rare earth elements. The company says its vision is to build high-purity alumina plants across North America. It hopes to start producing smelter-grade alumina by 2015 and eventually to have ten plants in Quebec alone. If all of this works out, there should be a lot of happy alumina consumers.

But, regardless of how these reported developments pan out, reading about them has been fun. The field of refractory ceramics tends to be unfairly pigeonholed as a stodgy field, so I find the enthusiasm and innovations platformed at the IBAAS sessions refreshing.