A New Tool to Boost Energy-Efficient Aluminum Production

September 21, 2018

By Dr. Rashid Abu Al-Rub, Dr. Tariq Shamim, Tapan Kumar Sahu and Dr. Mohamed Mahmoud

Once more precious than gold, aluminum has transformed from one of the world’s most precious metals into one of its most ubiquitous, thanks to innovative technological advances that have helped make its large-scale production possible.

This lightweight, flexible and highly conductive metal is now used to make our drink cans, cooking foil, electronics, airplanes, and power transmission lines – permeating nearly every industry. According to the Aluminum Manufacturers and Producers Association, global production and consumption of aluminum will double from 35 million tons in 2010 to 70 million tons by 2020.

Although technological advancements over the past 100 years have helped make aluminum extremely versatile in its applications, producing the metal is still quite energy-intensive, which comes at an economic and environmental cost. It is estimated that roughly 13,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity are required to produce just one ton of aluminum.

In an effort to make aluminum production more sustainable, the UAE’s Emirates Global Aluminum (EGA) – the jointly-owned aluminum conglomerate formed by Mubadala Development Corporation and Investment Corporation of Dubai – is seeking innovative solutions to reduce the energy, environmental and financial costs of producing the valuable metal.

EGA is the world’s fourth largest aluminum producer and has become instrumental in helping the UAE achieve its economic diversification goals. With sustainable development at its core, EGA strives to remain economically robust while protecting the environment and contributing to society. Thus, developing energy efficiency in its aluminum production processes is critical to its vision and mission.

In order to achieve energy efficiency in its aluminum production, EGA has partnered with Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology – the world’s first research‐driven graduate‐level university focused on advanced energy and sustainable technologies – to develop a computational tool that will assist in reducing the cost of one of the most expensive and energy-intensive parts of the aluminum production process – the carbon anode baking furnace.

Carbon anodes are used to transform aluminum oxide into pure aluminum. It does this through a smelting process based on electrolysis, which uses electricity to break the bonds between aluminum and oxygen. The oxygen ions are pulled to the carbon anodes, allowing pure, liquid aluminum metal to form at the cathode.

This key process is occurring day and night at EGA’s two smelters, producing over 2.4 million tons of aluminum annually. The carbon anodes – which are baked at very high temperatures in massive furnaces (almost the size of a football field) for nearly 2 weeks – must be frequently replaced, as nearly one-half ton of carbon anode is consumed with each ton of aluminum produced, representing a major financial and environmental expense.

Improving the carbon anode baking process – a process that currently represents 15% to 25% of the total aluminum production cost – could significantly reduce the energy and financial cost of the entire aluminum production process. The improved baking process would not only reduce the time and energy required to bake the anode (and resulting emissions), but would also result in higher quality carbon anodes with superior electrical conductivity and sufficient mechanical strength.

To improve the baking process, we are developing a computational tool that will help identify the optimal baking conditions for the development of high quality carbon anodes. Carbon anode baking is a very complex process and a good computational tool is imperative for understanding the process and for developing better furnace control strategies.

Our collaborative research team includes Masdar Institute’s Dr. Rashid Abu Al-Rub, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, and Dr. Tariq Shamim, Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, as well as the carbon anode area operators and engineers at EGA, including Tapan Kumar Sahu. The project is managed by Dr. Mohamed Mahmoud, Manager of the EGA’s Center of Excellence. We are also supported by Masdar Institute PhD student Abdul Raouf Tajik and Post-Doctoral Researcher Dr. Mouna Zaidani.

Current anode baking practices often result in anodes that become cracked or defective due to non-optimal heating in the furnace. Thus, to avoid this wastage and improve production efficiency, EGA operators of the carbon anode furnace will use the computational tool developed through our research collaboration to help identify optimal parameters – such as temperature of the furnace and time spent baking – that will lead to high quality anodes.

The innovative software tool will help EGA optimize its entire anode baking operation process; maximizing production, improving anode furnace designs, increasing overall energy efficiency, lowering carbon emissions, improving quality and reducing costs.

Strong collaborations like these – between the UAE’s leading research university and its leading aluminum manufacturer – serve as a catalyst for achieving sustainability and energy-efficiency in a valuable but energy-intensive sector. This collaborative project is producing not only an innovative tool to increase aluminum production efficiency, but it is also contributing to the development of highly-skilled human capital with the skills needed to fuel sustainability and innovation across all of the UAE’s key industries.

Dr. Mohamed Mahmoud is Manager of the Center of Excellence at Emirates Global Aluminum; Tapan Kumar Sahu is Manager of Process Control in Carbon Plant at Emirates Global Aluminum; Dr. Rashid Abu Al-Rub is Associate Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Masdar Institute; and Dr. Tariq Shamim is Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Masdar Institute. 

14 July 2016