Sustainable Scandium Extraction Valued in Aluminium-Scandium Alloys

Sustainable Scandium Extraction Valued in Aluminium-Scandium Alloys

Scandium is a valuable mineral that, when used as an alloying element, can provide distinct benefits to some aluminium applications. The commercial application of this mineral has been limited by its availability on the market. Looking to address this challenge, Rio Tinto researchers have developed a new process to extract high purity scandium oxide from by-products generated in the production of titanium dioxide (TiO2) at the Rio Tinto Fer et Titane (RTFT) metallurgical operation in Sorel-Tracy; Rio Tinto Aluminium (RTA) started the production of aluminium-scandium master alloy and proprietary alloys at the Dubuc facility, both located in Quebec, Canada.

In January 2021, Rio Tinto announced the construction of a scandium plant. Now in commissioning, the facility has a capacity of 3t years of high-quality scandium oxide and is looking at next modules to increase capacity. RTFT, part of Rio Tinto Iron & Titanium (RTIT), processes limonite ore to produce titanium dioxide pigment feedstock. The slag upgrading process generates a process stream with relatively high scandium content, which until recently ended up in landfill. The RTIT Technology Center has been working since 2015 to develop a process to recover scandium. The new process enables Rio Tinto to turn residues into high quality scandium oxide, creating value and an efficient circular system from what was previously waste.

RTA’s commercial team is partnering with end-users to develop and industrialize new aluminium-scandium alloys tailored to achieve high-end product requirements

RTA produces some of the highest quality, lowest carbon footprint aluminium in the world, 60% below the industry average across all aluminium operations. RTA achieved this by making sustainability a key focus of its R&D efforts to find innovative ways to reduce energy consumption, manage and recycle waste. As an example, ELYSIS™, a joint venture lead by Alcoa and Rio Tinto, supported by Apple and the governments of Canada and Quebec, has taken a major step in June with the start of construction on the first commercial-scale cells of ELYSIS’ breakthrough inert anode technology, at RTA’s Alma smelter in Quebec. This smelting technology has no direct greenhouse gas emissions. In Canada alone, the ELYSIS™ technology has the potential to reduce GHG emissions by 7 million tons, the equivalent of removing 1.8 million cars from the roads.

The Arvida Research and Development Center (ARDC), located near Rio Tinto’s smelters in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, works to develop new technologies for aluminium manufacturing. The center currently has around 145 scientists, researchers, and other employees on staff. Alloy development being one of the key areas of research, the expertise was put to contribution for the aluminium-scandium master alloy development. The 200g small ingot has already been approved by several aerospace end-users following a rigorous qualification process.

RTA’s commercial team is partnering with end-users to develop and industrialize new aluminium-scandium alloys tailored to achieve high-end product requirements. In March, Amaero and Rio Tinto agreed to collaborate on the development of the supply chain for Amaero’s high performance, High Operating Temperature Aluminium Alloy, “Amaero HOT Al”. Production of Al-Sc billet is scaling up with supply in both Australia and the USA. This innovation is combined with START Responsible Aluminium™, a new standard for responsible aluminium production, transparency and traceability. START is the first sustainability label for aluminium to use blockchain technology.

The synergy between existing metallurgical expertise and technologies allows Rio Tinto to produce allow-cost, high quality, and environmentally friendly scandium oxide and aluminium scandium value-added products in Canada, delivering sustainable products to the market.

 

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