Money in mud
Carlton Davis , Guest Columnist
Phillip Paulwell's recent announcement of the decision of a Japanese firm to escalate work on the extraction of rare-earth elements to a pilot plant study, with the objective of establishing a commercial operation, has aroused interest in the potential of red mud wastes.
The first person to show interest in the potential of red mud wastes, at any rate in a public and deliberate way, was the late politician and industrialist, Robert Lightbourne. His interest was primarily the iron and titanium oxides (which today amount to some 200 million tonnes and 30 million tonnes, respectively, in the various red mud deposits around the existing alumina plants).
Interest in finding some use for the material was shown by a number of others, including the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI). For example, in the 1980s, the JBI collaborated with Dr Arun Wagh and Dr W.R. Pinnock of the University of the West Indies (UWI), with funding from Canada's Industrial Research Centre, to see if the material could be used as a building material for low-income housing, community centres and basic schools.
There was a challenge to find a less-expensive treatment than buy the then-expensive oil to make the material durable. In the event, a chemical bonding agent achieved the objective, as demonstrated by a building to the west of the main one at JBI's offices and laboratories at Hope Gardens.
However, there were two negatives: One, the cost of producing the red mud bricks was not competitive with other construction materials; and the other, as demonstrated in the work of Dr Pinnock, was the high radioactivity of some of the red mud wastes which makes occupancy of such buildings less than ideal. In consequence, no further work was pursued along this line.
Apart from this work, JBI attempted to bring international focus on the red mud wastes when it staged an international symposium in 1988, in Kingston, to discuss various aspects of their management to reduce adverse environmental impacts, as well as potential uses.
In regard to rare earths, we knew, of course, of their existence in Jamaican bauxite and red mud wastes, but we did not think we could extract them commercially. The market realities and the research work of Nippon Light Metal Company have changed this, with the result that, if all goes well, the country could reap significant benefits from this important by-product of the alumina industry.
One area that has always interested me, as it did Mr Lightbourne in the 1960s, is the titanium content of the red mud and whether this valuable metal (which can be alloyed with iron, aluminium, vanadium, molybdenum, etc. to form strong light-weight metals for aerospace; for various other industrial and dental uses, sport gear, etc.), in its oxide form, could be extracted commercially.
ALL NOT LOST
It was with this in mind that The Gleaner of December 27, 2006 quoted me as saying: "We [JBI] have begun to do literature work on titanium oxide and its extractive metallurgy … . This is a future resource."
One of the things I had in mind was whether microbiological extractive metallurgy being developed for other metals could be used for extracting titanium oxide from our red mud wastes.
I have not said much about iron oxide, for which, as stated above, we have accumulated more than 200 million tonnes in our red mud wastes, because I still do not see us being competitive with the considerable reserves of naturally occurring iron-ore deposits elsewhere in the world. But who knows?
For now, I am of the view that both the JBI and the UWI should collaborate to see what can be done about the titanium oxide in the mud wastes. The JBI may also want to revisit the early work it did, while Dr Andrea Blackwood was in its employ, of seeing whether Jamaica could begin to produce the important metal gallium (used in microelectronics) from the processing of our bauxite into alumina. It may not be known that most of the world's supply of this metal, outside of recycled material, is derived from the alumina process.
As I have said in another context, all is far from lost for the bauxite industry in toto.
Carlton E. Davis is an adviser in the Office of the Prime Minister and former chairman of the JBI. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.