BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION
1. Technical Field
This invention relates to a carbothermic process for the direct thermal
reduction of aluminum oxide to form aluminum metal.
The predominant commercial process today for producing aluminum metal
is the Hall-Heroult process of electrolytically dissociating alumina dissolved in
a fused cryolitic bath at a temperature less than about 1000°C. Many attempts have
been made to replace this process and produce aluminum commercially by a direct
thermal reduction process of aluminum oxide with carbon at sufficiently high temperatures
according to a reaction written as equation (1).
Eq. (1) Al2O3 + 3 C → 2Al + 3 CO
Aluminum may be produced by the carbothermic direct thermal reduction
of alumina, e.g., in an open or submerged-arc electric or slag resistance heating
furnace. The scientific principles involved in the chemistry and thermodynamics
of the reactions are now fairly well understood (C. N. Cochran, Metal-Slag-Gas Reactions
and Processes, Electrochem. Soc., Princeton, N.J. 1975, pp. 299-316; K. Motzfeldt
and B. Sandberg, Light Metals 1979, A I M E, New York, N.Y. 1979, Vol. 1 pp. 411-428,
and references cited therein). Nonetheless, no commercial process based on these
principles has been established.
United States Patent 3,975,187 (Kibby) describes a method for reducing
the aluminum carbide content of aluminum produced by the carbothermic process by
contacting such aluminum with oxygen-containing gases such as air, oxygen, carbon
monoxide, or carbon dioxide to react with the aluminum carbide so as to improve
its ability to be separate from the aluminum, typically forming a foam of the aluminum
INTRODUCTION TO THE INVENTION
The carbothermic direct thermal reduction process involves reacting
an aluminum oxide containing compound with a reductant which is usually carbon,
aluminum carbide, or a mixture thereof in an electric furnace to reduce the aluminum
oxide to metallic aluminum. Although the reaction on first impression would appear
to be a simple one, i.e., the reduction of aluminum oxide to aluminum, substantially
pure aluminum is not obtained via conventional carbothermic processes and, in fact,
the product tapped from the furnace is aluminum contaminated with aluminum carbide.
The amount of contamination with aluminum carbide varies depending on the particular
carbothermic process which is carried out, but, in general, conventional carbothermic
processes result in the production of aluminum contaminated by 10-30% by weight
of aluminum carbide.
The carbothermic direct thermal reduction process has presented a
substantial technical challenge in that certain difficult processing obstacles must
be overcome. For example, at the temperatures necessary for the direct thermal reduction
of alumina to form aluminum, e.g., such as about 2050°C, the aluminum volatilizes
to a gas of aluminum metal or aluminum suboxide rather than forming as aluminum
metal liquid which may be tapped from the process. For this reason, most attempts
have incorporated an electrical furnace for the purpose of reducing the amount of
volatile gaseous constituents in the system.
In attempts to reduce alumina thermally with carbon in the absence
of other metals or their oxides, substantial amounts of aluminum carbide are produced
according to the reaction written as equation (2).
Eq. (2) 2Al2O3 + 9C → Al4C3
Equation (2) proceeds favorably at or above 1800°C. Other intermediate
compounds also are formed such as oxycarbides by the reactions written as equation
(3) and equation (4).
Eq. (3) 4Al2O3 + Al4C3
Eq. (4) Al4O4C + Al4C3
The reduction of alumina by carbon, when carried out under reduced
pressure, proceeds with aluminum oxycarbide and aluminum carbide as intermediate
products written as equation (5) and equation (6).
Eq. (5) 2Al2O3 + 3C → Al4O4C
Eq. (6) Al4O4C + 6C → Al4C3
Below 1900°C, all reactants and products except CO are solids. To
attain an equilibrium gas pressure of 1 atm, however, temperatures of around 2000°C
are required, the reaction mixture is partially molten, and the simple equations
(5) and (6) are no longer directly applicable. Likewise, the final, metal-producing
step might be written as equation (7).
Eq. (7) Al4O4C + Al4C3
→ 8Al(1) + 4CO
The equilibrium gas pressure for this reaction reaches 1 atm at about
2100°C. In a reduction furnace operated under atmospheric pressure, the reaction
zone must be maintained at a temperature at least sufficient to give the equilibrium
pressure of CO equal to 1 atm. Allowing for some over-pressure to drive the reaction
means a temperature of about 2150°C. At this temperature, the system includes solid
carbon plus two liquids, an oxide-carbide melt and a metallic melt or metal melt.
Equation (7) is not applicable, and the metal-producing reaction may be written
schematically as equation (8).
Eq. (8) (oxide - carbide melt) + C(s) → (metal melt) +
Concurrent with the production of carbon monoxide and condensed products,
volatile aluminum-bearing species Al2O(g) and Al(g) also will be formed.
In the first steps of the reaction, formally described by equation (5) and equation
(6), the equilibrium pressures of Al2O and Al amount to only a few percent
of the equilibrium pressure of CO. In the final step, represented by equation (7)
or equation (8), the proportions of Al2O and Al in the equilibrium gas
are higher, but not excessive. It has been shown, however, that the reaction between
alumina and carbon proceeds via a mechanism involving a gas phase with a high proportion
of Al2O and Al, and, as a consequence, the losses by volatilization will
be higher than those expected from the equilibria. Further, the metallic melt has
a lower density than that of the oxide-carbide melt and thus the metallic melt floats
on top of the oxide-carbide melt. The CO gas evolved by reaction (8) must pass through
the metal melt, which further increases losses by volatilization.
Volatilization of Al and Al2O from the hot zone does not
necessarily lead to metal loss. In a submerged-arc furnace, the reaction gas passes
upwards through layers of colder charge, where the metal-bearing vapors may condense,
at the same time preheating the charge. With a high fraction of metal vapors in
the gas, however, the charge runs too hot, and losses by volatilization occur.
A primary difficulty in the carbothermic production of aluminum is
caused by the substantial solubility of carbon in the metal at reaction temperature,
about 20 atom % C when the metallic melt is in equilibrium with solid carbon. When
the melt is cooled, the carbon precipitates as aluminum carbide as written in equation
Eq. (9) (12A1 + 3C, molten mixture) → Al4C3(S)
About one-third of the metal value is precipitated as carbide. This
necessitates a subsequent separation step, and recycling of the aluminum carbide,
which is a disadvantage to the economy of the process.
Another difficulty in the carbothermic reduction of alumina in a submerged-arc
furnace relates to the energy input and heat transfer. The metallic melt floats
on top and will be directly underneath the electrodes. Because of the high electrical
conductivity of the metal, the resistance in the furnace circuit will be low, and
difficulties are experienced in maintaining an adequate energy input to the furnace.
Further, the heat generation will take place predominantly on the surface of the
metal, leading to very high metal temperature and substantial evaporation. To the
extent this metal is condensed in the charge above the melt, it runs right back
into the hot zone and is re-evaporated. The net result of this cyclic process of
vaporization and condensation is that a large fraction of the generated heat is
transferred upwards in the furnace, instead of being conducted downwards to the
oxide-carbide melt where the heat is needed for the endothermic reaction (8).
The carbides and oxycarbides of aluminum readily form at temperatures
lower than the temperatures required for significant thermal reduction to aluminum
metal and represent a substantial slag-forming problem in any process intended to
produce aluminum metal.
All the major oxides in bauxite except zirconia are reduced by carbothermic
smelting before alumina is reduced. In practice, the oxides do not behave as simply
as predicted. Instead, intermediate compounds are formed such as carbides, oxycarbides,
and volatile subcompounds.
Most processes for the carbothermic production of aluminum always
result in the production of aluminum contaminated with aluminum carbide, and the
aluminum carbide contamination can be in the range of 20 weight percent or higher.
A severe practical difficulty arises in attempting to purify aluminum contaminated
with aluminum carbide in significant amounts because the mixture becomes non-pourable
unless extremely high temperatures are maintained, such that the problem of purifying
the mass becomes complex.
The amount of aluminum carbide contamination bears a direct relationship
to the temperature employed, i.e., at the normal reduction temperatures employed
in a furnace, the amount of aluminum carbide which can dissolve in the formed aluminum
is about 20 weight percent or higher. Most processes result in the production of
high aluminum carbide-containing products for the simple reason that they utilize
uniform heating such that the majority of the charge was at a uniformly high temperature
and, therefore, it was possible to dissolve aluminum carbide in appreciable amounts.
In one process, the furnace operation is carried out such that an
intermittent type of heating is applied to the charge to be reduced so that a portion
of the charge is at reaction temperature (about 2100°C) but a majority of the charge
is not at reaction temperature at any given time. Accordingly, when the formed aluminum
flows over the charge, the charge is never at a temperature where more than about
10 weight percent aluminum carbide dissolves in the molten aluminum.
The present standards for commercially pure aluminum do not allow
a significant quantity of aluminum carbide to be present, so that the furnace product
from most carbothermic reduction processes must be subjected to further processing
steps to reduce the aluminum carbide content to an acceptable level. The processes
for reducing the aluminum carbide content from the product of a carbothermic reduction
furnace have been found to be time consuming, expensive, and not economically feasible.
The aluminum carbide content of at least a portion of the aluminum
produced by a carbothermic direct thermal reduction process can be decreased by
cooling the furnace melt so that an aluminum carbide matrix is formed whereby the
aluminum carbide matrix squeezes out aluminum to the surface of the melt and this
aluminum can be removed by any suitable technique, including decanting. The aluminum
removed in this manner is diminished in aluminum carbide content; but only a small
portion of the available aluminum is recovered.
The yield of aluminum from a carbothermic reduction process can be
enhanced by utilizing a mechanical working. A technique of this type subjects moving
equipment under severe stress to very hot and corrosive conditions.
In one process, a mixture of aluminum contaminated with aluminum carbide
in the molten state contacts certain gases which interact with or operate upon aluminum
carbide to prevent the formation of an aluminum carbide matrix which would entrap
the aluminum. Treatment involves blowing the gas through the body of the melt of
aluminum and aluminum carbide.
Fluxing with metallic salts can diminish the amount of aluminum carbide
contamination, but the molten salts mix with the carbide so removed, and it is costly
to remove the carbide from the salt so that the carbide can be recycled to the furnace.
Without such recycle, the power consumption and furnace size become uneconomical
in comparison with methods practiced commercially today for making aluminum.
For over 100 years, aluminum has been produced by the two part Bayer-Hall
process, wherein alumina (Al2O3) first is extracted from bauxite
ore, and the alumina then is reduced electrolytically in molten cryolite (sodium
aluminum fluoride) to free aluminum metal. Although the process has been highly
successful commercially, it consumes large quantities of electricity and takes about
four pounds of bauxite to produce one pound of aluminum. Bauxite typically comprises
45 to 60 percent aluminum oxide, 3 to 25 percent iron oxide, 2.5 to 18 percent silicon
oxide, 2 to 5 percent titanium oxide, up to one percent other impurities, combined
with 12 to 30 percent water of crystallization. The ore varies greatly in the proportions
of its constituents, and in color and consistency. Gibbsite, boehmite, and diaspore
are the hydrated aluminum oxide minerals normally found in bauxite.
The average grade of bauxite ore used in the Bayer-Hall process has
continually declined. In 1930, ore used in the U.S. averaged 60 percent alumina,
and by 1963, the average was less than 50 percent alumina. Although it is anticipated
that this average will decrease to about 35 percent alumina in the future, the process
is limited generally to the use of bauxite ore high in aluminum content. Domestic
reserves of such high grade are totally inadequate to meet current production requirements.
The difficulty in producing aluminum with respect to thermal processes
does not reside in the formation of the aluminum via reduction of the alumina-bearing
ores, but rather, in the recovery of aluminum in a substantially pure state.
Obtaining substantially pure aluminum from a carbothermic process
by extremely high operating temperatures can lead to problems with respect to materials
The most common techniques in attempting to produce aluminum metal
of a high degree of purity by direct thermal reduction treat the furnace product,
conventionally containing 10-30 weight percent of aluminum carbide, by techniques
such as fluxing the furnace product with metal salts to diminish the amount of aluminum
The molten salts mix with the carbide so removed, and it is costly
to remove the carbide from the salt so that the carbide can be recycled to the furnace.
Without such recycle, the power consumption and furnace size become uneconomical
in comparison with methods practiced commercially for making aluminum.
The furnace product contaminated with aluminum carbide can be heated
with a molten slag containing substantial proportions of alumina to cause the alumina
in the slag to react with the aluminum carbide in the furnace product, thereby diminishing
the furnace product in aluminum carbide.
One mode can be described as the "reduction mode," and it involves
reaction between alumina in the slag and aluminum carbide in the furnace product
at reduction conditions so as to produce aluminum metal. One way of ascertaining
operation in this mode is by detecting the evolution of carbon monoxide.
Another mode of reaction can be described as the "extraction mode,"
and it involves reaction between the alumina in the slag and the aluminum carbide
in the furnace product to produce non-metallic slag compounds such as aluminum tetraoxycarbide,
as opposed to producing liquid aluminum. Such "extraction mode" reactions occur
at temperatures insufficient to cause reduction to produce additional aluminum and
can occur without causing the evolution of carbon monoxide.
Temperatures of at least 2050°C are necessary for the "reduction mode"
operations at reaction zone pressures of one atmosphere. At any given pressure,
the temperature required for "reduction mode" operation increases as the level of
aluminum carbide in the metal decreases. On the other hand, "extraction mode" operations
can take place below 2050°C.
Slags containing calcium oxide can be used to lower the melting point.
The majority of the slag does not have to be at the reduction temperature. It only
has to be molten and at a high enough temperature to exist as a molten layer separate
from the metal layer.
The slags used are those wherein the weight ratio of alumina to any
aluminum carbide contained therein is at least 4:1.
In the production of aluminum, various methods are employed which
utilize specific electric arc furnaces. In one method, a first furnace is charged
with carbon in the form of coke along with aluminum oxycarbide slag. The furnace
is heated to a temperature of about 2000°C resulting in the formation of aluminum
carbide along with some aluminum and slag. The aluminum carbide is charged into
the second furnace either in the molten state, or it is permitted first to cool
after which it is crushed to a suitable size prior to charging. In the second furnace,
the aluminum carbide is reacted with alumina to form aluminum which is recovered,
and slag is returned to the first furnace.
Since the temperature required for the reduction of aluminum is relatively
high, usually about 2000°C, and since the heat transfer rate between bodies of disparate
temperature is directly related to the temperature differences between the two bodies,
it is advantageous from an energy conservation standpoint to retain any material
being transported from a first reduction stage to a second stage in a high temperature
ambient. In smelting processes using separate furnaces, considerable heat is lost,
requiring the addition of this lost energy in the second furnace, whether intermediate
products are delivered to the second furnace in a molten or in a solid, crushed
state. Exposure of intermediate products to ambient air often results in undesirable
Smelting processes employing two or three furnaces also have substantial
manpower requirements. Because of the additional energy, equipment and manpower
required, these processes are accompanied by unnecessarily high costs. Further,
these methods result in a degree of physical loss of intermediate or final product
because of repeated handling.
A practical and readily available source of aluminum contaminated
with no more than about 5 weight percent of aluminum carbide can be achieved by
the process and apparatus of the present invention.
SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION
The present invention provides a process for forming aluminum metal
from the carbothermic direct reduction of alumina ore. An alumina ore is heated
in the presence of carbon at an elevated temperature above 1800°C for example above
about 2000°C to produce an aluminum metal. Aluminum metal or aluminum metal alloy
scrap then is added as a solid coolant to reduce the temperature to about 900-1000°C
and precipitate out aluminum carbide. The precipitated aluminum carbide is filtered,
decanted, or fluxed with salt to form an aluminum metal produced by the carbothermic
direct reduction of alumina ore and containing 5% by wt. or less aluminum carbide.
Scrap aluminum used in the aluminum production process of the invention
can be obtained from several different sources, including consumer scrap, vehicle
scrap, and plant scrap. Consumer scrap refers to aluminum alloy products, especially
beverage and food cans, coated with various polymeric coatings. Vehicle scrap refers
to aluminum alloy material obtained from junked motor vehicles. Plant scrap refers
to waste material from aluminum manufacturing plants, such as defective sheet generated
during drawing and ironing processes.
Recycled scrap aluminum alloy cans are compacted and baled. The cans
are then reduced to shreds by a grinder, hammer mill or rotating knives so that
they are in the form of small fragments of approximately 2-4 cm nominal diameter.
The shredded scrap is subjected to magnetic separation to remove iron
and steel contaminants, and to gravity or cyclone separation to remove paper and
other light weight contaminants. The cleaned scrap is then introduced into a delacquering
furnace. Air heated to a temperature typically about 480-540°C is blown through
the bed of scrap while it moves along on a steel conveyor belt. This temperature
is sufficient to pyrolize organic matter but not to oxidize the aluminum alloy scrap.
Most aluminum alloy scrap is largely made up of recycled beverage
cans containing about 25% by weight AA5182 can ends and about 75% by weight AA3004
can bodies. The typical compositions of these alloys are as follows, in weight %.
AA3004―Mg 0.9, Mn 1.0, Fe 0.45, Si 0.2, Ti 0.04, and Cu 0.18.
AA5182-Mg 4.5, Mn 0.25, Fe 0.25, Si 0.12, Ti 0.05, and Cu 0.08.
Carbothermic production of aluminum uses carbon and an alumina bearing
material reacted at 2050°C and higher in an arc furnace chemically to produce aluminum.
This process produces an alloy that contains 30-10% by wt. Al4C3.
Preferably, an increase in temperature from 2050°C to 2150°C reduces
the amount of Al4C3, which is desired to produce primary aluminum.
However, the higher temperature makes for a more volatile aluminum species in the
system. The species in the system include an alumina rich slag and the aluminum
metal that contains Al4C3. Excessive aluminum species are
lost by volatilization, and the process becomes uneconomical. An operating practice
to minimize volatilization of the aluminum species uses a carbon column through
which the volatile species must pass to recapture them. The carbon column process
has not been successful because of a difficulty of controlling power input to raise
temperature while minimizing volatilization of aluminum species.
The process of the present invention utilizes a carbon-alumina reaction
at a temperature of about 2050°C to form a first aluminum-Al4C3
product at 10-30% by wt. Al4C3 at a point of minimum volatilization.
The first aluminum-Al4C3 product of the present invention
then is contacted with sufficient scrap aluminum to bring the temperature to approximately
1000-900°C during which the Al4C3 precipitates out as a solid
from which it can be filtered, decanted, and/or removed by fluxing. The process
and apparatus of the present invention produce an aluminum that is acceptable as
primary aluminum with minimum Al4C3 contamination. The reduction
of the temperature minimizes the loss of volatile species and provides a heat source
to melt scrap. The scrap melting rate is approximately equivalent to the production
rate of the aluminum-Al4C3 production. For example, in a carbothermic
process producing 1000 lbs./hr., scrap is melted at the rate of 1000 lbs./hr. to
produce a metal stream product of the present invention of 2000 lbs./hr. Al4C3
is filtered out and recycled back to the carbothermic reactor to capture the aluminum
values in the Al4C3.
The method and apparatus of the present invention achieve a minimized
volatilization of aluminum species and utilize the sensible heat in the aluminum-Al4C3
product to melt the scrap in the second stage of the process and apparatus of the
The primary furnace product in the carbothermic reduction process
consists of a molten body containing aluminum metal with 10-30%, preferably 10-15%,
by weight aluminum carbide at approximately 2100°C.
This product contains significant excess sensible heat, but when a
mixture of 10% or more carbide is cooled to about 1400°C, the aluminum carbide forms
a cellular structure that entraps liquid aluminum, rendering the melt difficult
As a result, unless extremely high temperatures are maintained throughout
all the process steps, transporting the product mixture to purify it becomes extremely
The present invention includes adding aluminum scrap to the melt as
a solid coolant utilizing the excess sensible heat of the primary furnace product,
while diluting the carbide to preserve fluidity, and extending productivity at minimal
The scrap recycle capacity, i.e., the capacity of the melt to absorb
scrap includes a sensible heat available to cool the melt from 2100 to 1000°C on
the order of 8.346 kcal/mol. The latent heat to melt scrap is 2.072 kcal/mol. The
sensible heat to bring scrap to 1000°C is 5.326 kcal/mol. Accordingly, the capacity
of the melt to melt scrap is about 1.128 kg Al scrap/kg of furnace product. The
solid scrap coolant may be added to the melt in various proportions ranging from
about 0.2 to 1.1 kg scrap per kg of furnace product, preferably about 0.5-1.1, and
optimally about 0.8-1.
The scrap recycle process of the present invention includes adding
scrap aluminum to the furnace product immediately after tapping or tapping into
a crucible containing the dried scrap. The product should remain fluid by precipitating
out aluminum carbide in fine form upon cooling and avoiding the cellular carbide
structure, and by reducing the concentration of carbide below the problem region.
The process of the present invention further includes filtering or decanting the
carbide and recycling it to the furnace, thereby leaving a molten aluminum alloy
body having reduced aluminum carbide content.
Advantages of the scrap recycle include utilization of the sensible
heat in the furnace product, preservation of melt, improved fluidity, improvement
of separation of carbide, and an increase of metal production with minimal additional
While the invention has been described in detail with respect to specific
embodiments thereof, it will be appreciated that those skilled in the art, upon
attaining an understanding of the foregoing, may readily conceive of alterations
to, variations of, and equivalents to these embodiments. Accordingly, the scope
of the present invention should be assessed as that of the appended claims and any