The demand for aluminium is high. Its consumers are the construction industry, high-end automobile production, aeronautics and household appliances manufacturers.
For more than 120 years, the Bayer process has been used to extract alumina, the basis of aluminium, from bauxite, at the expense of bulky waste – red mud – and with dwindling high-quality bauxite deposits.
Romain Girbal, a “business angel” and entrepreneur, decided to re-think the alumina value chain. He co-founded the Alliance Minière Responsable [Responsible Mining Alliance], an independent French company founded on a sustainable bauxite mining model in the Republic of Guinea. For 4 years, he has also been a shareholder and Managing Director of iB2, an innovative solution which allows refineries to optimise their low-grade bauxite yields, while strongly decreasing the production of red mud.
Romain Girbal plays an active part in the development of iB2, a solution of special interest for the environment
Today, high-quality deposits are dwindling and half of the world’s production of alumina is supplied by refineries using low-grade bauxite. This is most often extracted from local deposits, mainly in China.
Although this bauxite with its low concentration of alumina is not expensive to buy, its yield is unfortunately poor. Consequently, refiners are seeing rising production costs and the increased red mud pollution which goes hand in hand with it. They are buying more bauxite and products necessary for the Bayer extraction process, such as caustic soda. They are also operating their high-temperature calcination ovens over longer periods of time. From the environmental point of view, CO2 emissions are high and the volume of waste – red mud – can reach 60%.
Romain Girbal is very familiar with the bauxite and alumina market. When he met Yves Occello – 40 years’ experience in the production of alumina and founder of iB2 – he understood that he had found the solution for enriching bauxite which was going to revolutionise the alumina and aluminium sector over the next few years. He says: “This is a technology which allows alumina refineries to decrease the production of red mud by 60%. That has a really positive impact on the environment.
By radically transforming the use and profitability of low-grade bauxite, this solution also becomes a virtuous alternative to the importation of high-quality bauxite. As a matter of fact, the ore is shipped by sea. The lorries loaded at the quayside for delivery to refineries travel hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres, thereby producing tons of CO2. At the end of the chain, the volume of red mud remains high and the environmental impact of importation is heavy.
iB2 is a technology attracting attention and talent. The Board brings together the founder Yves Occello, Laurant Musy and Chloé Matte, as well as Anne Lauvergeon (who is also a member of the management board of Rio Tinto, one of the principal international mining groups), Thibault Launay and Romain Girbal. The latter three members cited are members, with other experts, of the management board of Alliance Minière Responsable.
There are great opportunities in sight for refiners with iB2 and the mining of local bauxite: high-quality alumina production, an attractive economic model and minimised ecological impact.
iB2 is a profitable, innovative technology which can be integrated into existing refineries
“Thanks to us, alumina refineries using low-grade bauxite can decrease their production costs by 40%. Decreasing their production costs by 40% allows them to become profitable” claims Romain Girbal. The 10 specialists who have been working on this new technology for 4 years have devised a process which allows alumina to be extracted with less bauxite, less caustic soda and a 60% reduction in red mud.
The process is built around 4 points:
1: bauxite with a low alumina content forms the basic material
2: the bauxite is improved using the iB2 procedure
3: the Bayer process is optimised for this ore
4: the alumina is produced.
One, and not the least, of the features of this innovative chain is that it can be used alongside existing production facilities without modifying them in any way.
The financial model offered by Romain Girbal with the iB2 solution allows refineries a return on their investment in 1 year, the result being that many refineries which are subsidised (by the Chinese state, for example) or whose profit margin is very low or non-existent, are going to become profitable, while at the same time offering the market competitively priced alumina.
Local low-quality bauxite can be mined in situ, minimising the CO2 emissions linked with shipment. The bauxite/alumina ratio is better and does not waste ore. By generating less industrial waste and less red mud, the business increases its level of acceptability in relation to environmental constraints.
Bauxite boosted by iB2 offers double benefits
The iB2 team led by Yves Occello has discovered that by fine-tuning the procedure, the iB2 technology generated a “co-product”: CSH. This appeared during the transformation of the bauxite.
The bauxite has become doubly profitable: “iB2 does a double job” explains Romain Girbal. While the extraction of alumina is optimised, the CSH is generated by this procedure alone, at zero cost. The principle of circular economy is therefore at the heart of the iB2 process.
Silicates are fundamental to cement manufacture. From now on, iB2 is multiplying its contacts with industrialists in the bauxite/alumina fields, as well as cement manufacturers in order to explore the potential of the calcium silicate hydrate originating from alumina extraction. This co-product could thereby be used instead of other ingredients to manufacture this construction material in a circular economy model. Although it may be difficult to find a buyer for the bauxite residue (red mud), the CSH attracts many different trades these days.
Guinean bauxite envied by Chinese refineries
The aluminium markets appear to be having to continue their growth, particularly owing to the rise in the Chinese middle class. “Demand is soaring because in China the middle class is evolving rapidly and the requirement for household goods is skyrocketing. The need for aluminium is rising all the time.” says Romain Girbal. The Chinese market presents itself as the priority market for iB2. Today, it represents nearly 70% of the company’s potential client-base.
As a shrewd entrepreneur and “Business Angel”, Romain Girbal is banking on the resource’s two endpoints: on the one hand, the mining of a high-quality bauxite deposit in the Republic of Guinea and, on the other, iB2 as an innovative growth lever for alumina refineries using low-grade bauxite.
Romain Girbal is particularly committed and can see a great future for iB2. He concludes: “iB2 is a really revolutionary, unique technology. This technology is going to revolutionise the alumina and aluminium sector over the next 5 years.”