How is Aluminum Made?
Aluminum is one of our most widely-used metals, found in everything from beer cans to airplane parts.
However, the lightweight metal doesn’t occur naturally, and producing it is a complex process.
The Three Stages of Aluminum Production
Each year, the world produces around 390 million tonnes of bauxite rock, and 85% of it is used to make aluminum.
Bauxites are rocks composed of aluminum oxides along with other minerals and are the world’s primary source of aluminum. After mining, bauxite is refined into alumina, which is then converted into aluminum.
Therefore, aluminum typically goes from ore to metal in three stages.
Stage 1: Mining Bauxite
Bauxite is typically extracted from the ground in open-pit mines, with just three countries—Australia, China, and Guinea—accounting for 72% of global mine production.
|Country||2021 Mine Production of Bauxite (tonnes)||% of Total|
|Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦||4,300,000||1.1%|
|Rest of the World 🌍||15,500,000||4.0%|
Australia is by far the largest bauxite producer, and it’s also home to the Weipa Mine, the biggest bauxite mining operation globally.
Guinea, the third-largest producer, is endowed with more than seven billion tonnes of bauxite reserves, more than any other country. Additionally, Guinea is the top exporter of bauxite globally, with 76% of its bauxite exports going to China.
After bauxite is out of the ground, it is sent to refineries across the globe to make alumina, marking the second stage of the production process.
Stage 2: Alumina Production
In the 1890s, Austrian chemist Carl Josef Bayer invented a revolutionary process for extracting alumina from bauxite. Today—over 100 years later—some 90% of alumina refineries still use the Bayer process to refine bauxite.
Here are the four key steps in the Bayer process:
Bauxite is mixed with sodium hydroxide and heated under pressure. At this stage, the sodium hydroxide selectively dissolves aluminum oxide from the bauxite, leaving behind other minerals as impurities.
Impurities are separated and filtered from the solution, forming a residue known as red mud. After discarding the mud, aluminum oxide is converted into sodium aluminate.
The sodium aluminate solution is cooled and precipitated into a solid, crystallized form of aluminum hydroxide.
The aluminum hydroxide crystals are washed and heated in calciners to form pure aluminum oxide—a sandy white material known as alumina.
The impurities or red mud left behind in the alumina production process is a major environmental concern. In fact, for every tonne of alumina, refineries produce 1.2 tonnes of red mud, and there are over three billion tonnes of it stored in the world today.
China, the second-largest producer and largest importer of bauxite, supplies more than half of the world’s alumina.
|Country||2021 alumina production (tonnes)||% of total|
|Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦||1,800,000||1%|
|Rest of the World 🌍||15,100,000||11%|
Several major producers of bauxite, including Australia, Brazil, and India, are among the largest alumina producers, although none come close to China.
Alumina has applications in multiple industries, including plastics, cosmetics, and chemical production. But of course, the majority of it is shipped to smelters to make aluminum.
Stage 3: Aluminum Production
Alumina is converted into aluminum through electrolytic reduction. Besides alumina itself, another mineral called cryolite is key to the process, along with loads of electricity. Here’s a simplified overview of how aluminum smelting works:
- In aluminum smelter facilities, hundreds of electrolytic reduction cells are filled up with molten cryolite.
- Alumina (composed of two aluminum atoms and three oxygen atoms) is then dumped into these cells, and a strong electric current breaks the chemical bond between aluminum and oxygen atoms.
- The electrolysis results in pure liquid aluminum settling at the bottom of the cell, which is then purified and cast into its various shapes and sizes.
China dominates global aluminum production and is also the largest consumer. Its neighbor India is the second-largest producer, making only a tenth of China’s output.
|Country||2021 Aluminum Smelter Production (tonnes)||% of total|
|United Arab Emirates 🇦🇪||2,600,000||4%|
|Rest of the World 🌍||9,400,000||14%|
As is the case for alumina production, some of the countries that produce bauxite and alumina also produce aluminum, such as India, Australia, and Russia.
Roughly a quarter of annually produced aluminum is used by the construction industry. Another 23% goes into vehicle frames, wires, wheels, and other parts of the transportation industry. Aluminum foil, cans, and packaging also make up another major end-use with a 17% consumption share.
Aluminum’s widespread applications have made it one of the most valuable metal markets. In 2021, the global aluminum market was valued at around $245.7 billion, and as consumption grows, it’s projected to nearly double in size to $498.5 billion by 2030.
Mapped: U.S. Mineral Production Value by State in 2022
U.S. mineral production value increased by 4% YoY in 2022 to reach $98.2 billion. Which states contributed the most to domestic mineral production?
U.S. States Ranked by the Value of their Mineral Production
The U.S. produced $98.2 billion worth of nonfuel minerals in 2022, but which states made up the majority of the mining?
This map uses data from the USGS to map and rank U.S. states by the value of their nonfuel mineral production in 2022.
The ranking takes into account the mining of nonfuel minerals that are split into two main categories: metallic minerals (like gold, copper, or silver), and industrial minerals (like phosphate rock, various types of clay, and crushed stone).
The Top Mineral-Producing States in the U.S.
Arizona tops the list of mineral-producing states, with $10.1 billion worth of minerals which account for 10.3% of the U.S. total, largely due to the state’s prolific copper production. The state of Arizona accounted for around 70% of domestic copper production in 2022, and as a result also produces large amounts of molybdenum as a byproduct.
The state of Nevada was the next top mineral producer at $8.9 billion worth of minerals, thanks to its longstanding leadership in gold mining (accounting for 72% of U.S. gold production in 2022) and by having the only operating lithium project in America.
States in the Western region of the U.S. dominate the ranking of top mineral-producing states, holding the top two spots and making up half of the top 10 when it comes to total mineral production value.
|Rank||State||Mineral Production Value (2022)||Share of U.S. total|
*The value of these states is a partial total which excludes withheld values by the USGS to avoid disclosing company proprietary data. Rankings remain unaffected which is why some states may rank higher than others despite having a lower value.
Texas rounds out the top three at $8 billion worth of minerals produced in 2022, largely thanks to its dominant production of crushed stone. The state of Texas was the top producer of crushed stone in 2022 at more than $2.8 billion worth, nearly double that of the next largest producer, Florida, which produced $1.5 billion worth.
What Minerals is the U.S. Producing the Most of?
Nonfuel mineral production is categorized into two main categories by the USGS, metals/metallic minerals and industrial minerals.
While not as shiny, the produced value of industrial minerals far outweighs that of metallic minerals. While $34.7 billion worth of metals were produced in 2022, industrial mineral production value was nearly double at $63.5 billion.
Construction aggregates like construction sand and gravel along with crushed stone made up almost half of industrial minerals production at $31.4 billion, with crushed stone being the leading mineral commodity overall at $21 billion of production value.
Following crushed stone, the next top minerals produced but the U.S. were (in decreasing order of value): cement, copper, construction sand and gravel, and gold.
Although the value of metals production decreased by 6% compared to 2021, industrial minerals production increased by 10% year-over-year, resulting in an overall increase in America’s overall nonfuel mineral production of 4%.
Visualizing the Opportunity Cost of Unrecycled Metals in the U.S.
Exploring the quantity and dollar value of recycled metals in the U.S. by visualizing metal recycling ratios.
The Opportunity Cost of Unrecycled Metals in the U.S.
Metals are an essential resource for modern society, used in everything from construction and transportation to technology and medical equipment. As the demand for these minerals continues to grow, so does the amount of waste generated by their production and consumption.
Recycling this metal waste is not just a win for sustainability; it also has huge economic benefits. In the visual above, we explore the ratio of recycled vs. unrecycled metals in the U.S. using 2020 Recycling Statistics by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Metal Recycling in the U.S.
Opportunity cost is a concept that refers to the benefits that are forgone when choosing one option over another. In the case of unrecycled metals, the opportunity cost is the potential economic and environmental benefits that could have been achieved through increasing metal recycling ratios.
Below are the recycling rates for select metals in the U.S. in 2020.
|Metal||% of supply recycled|
|Iron & Steel||52|
The above recycled metals represented a dollar value of $26 billion in 2020. Their unrecycled counterparts, on the other hand, represented $28 billion.
Metals can either be recycled from scrap that results from the manufacturing process (known as “new scrap”) or scrap from post-consumer products (“old scrap.”) Regardless of the source, many of them, especially chromium, copper, and tin, have the potential to reap further sustainability and economic benefits by recycling a larger proportion of their scrap supplies.
The Case for Metal Recycling
When compared with the mining, processing and transport of new metals, recycling metals can provide a significantly less energy-intensive alternative, saving enough energy each year to power millions of homes in the U.S.
Recycling metals can also save natural resources, create more green jobs, and reduce a country’s dependency on mineral imports by supplementing its supply of raw materials.
Overall, the potential for metal recycling is vast, and taking steps to increase the amount of recycled metals in the U.S. can lead to even greater sustainability and economic benefits.
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