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How Is Aluminum Made?

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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 above infographics use data from the USGS, Aluminium Leader, and other sources to break down the three stages of aluminum production.

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.

Country2021 Mine Production of Bauxite (tonnes)% of Total
Australia 🇦🇺110,000,00028.2%
China 🇨🇳86,000,00022.1%
Guinea 🇬🇳85,000,00021.8%
Brazil 🇧🇷32,000,0008.2%
India 🇮🇳22,000,0005.6%
Indonesia 🇮🇩18,000,0004.6%
Russia 🇷🇺6,200,0001.6%
Jamaica 🇯🇲5,800,0001.5%
Kazakhstan 🇰🇿5,200,0001.3%
Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦4,300,0001.1%
Rest of the World 🌍15,500,0004.0%
Total390,000,000100.0%

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:

  1. Digestion:
    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.
  2. Filtration:
    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.
  3. Precipitation:
    The sodium aluminate solution is cooled and precipitated into a solid, crystallized form of aluminum hydroxide.
  4. Calcination:
    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.

Country2021 alumina production (tonnes)% of total
China 🇨🇳74,000,00053%
Australia 🇦🇺21,000,00015%
Brazil 🇧🇷11,000,0008%
India 🇮🇳6,800,0005%
Russia 🇷🇺3,100,0002%
Germany 🇩🇪1,900,0001%
Ireland 🇮🇪1,900,0001%
Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦1,800,0001%
Ukraine 🇺🇦1,700,0001%
Spain 🇪🇸1,600,0001%
Rest of the World 🌍15,100,00011%
Total139,900,000100%

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:

  1. In aluminum smelter facilities, hundreds of electrolytic reduction cells are filled up with molten cryolite.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Country2021 Aluminum Smelter Production (tonnes)% of total
China 🇨🇳39,000,00059%
India 🇮🇳3,900,0006%
Russia 🇷🇺3,700,0006%
Canada 🇨🇦3,100,0005%
United Arab Emirates 🇦🇪2,600,0004%
Australia 🇦🇺1,600,0002%
Bahrain 🇧🇭1,500,0002%
Iceland 🇮🇸880,0001%
U.S. 🇺🇸880,0001%
Rest of the World 🌍9,400,00014%
Total66,560,000100%

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.

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Misc

Visualizing Raw Steel Production in 2023

China produces more than half the world’s steel.

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Voronoi graphic showing the estimated global production of raw steel in 2023.

Visualizing Raw Steel Production in 2023

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Steel is essential for the economy due to its crucial role in infrastructure, construction, manufacturing, and transportation sectors.

This graphic breaks down the estimated global production of raw steel in 2023. The data was sourced from the U.S. Geological Survey as of January 2024.

China Produces More Than Half the World’s Steel

One major issue facing the steel industry is overcapacity in top producer China.

Steel production in China has surpassed demand in recent years, leading to downward pressure on the profit margins of steel mills worldwide.

Historically, China’s troubled real estate sector has accounted for over one-third of the country’s steel consumption. To address this issue, the Chinese government has mandated steel production cuts since 2021.

Far behind China, India is the second-biggest producer of steel, followed by Japan.

CountryRegion2023 Production (million tonnes)
🇨🇳 ChinaAsia1,000
🇮🇳 IndiaAsia140
🇯🇵 JapanAsia87
🇺🇸 U.S.North America80
🇷🇺 RussiaEurope75
🇰🇷 S. KoreaAsia68
🌍 Rest of World420
Total1,870

Infinite Recyclability

Steel is an alloy primarily composed of iron ore containing less than 2% carbon, 1% manganese, and other trace elements. It is 1,000 times stronger than iron and can be recycled over and over without sacrificing quality.

Steel is widely used in various industries. It is a fundamental material in construction, providing support through beams, internal structures, and roofing.

Moreover, steel’s corrosion-resistant properties make it ideal for water infrastructure. Stainless steel pipes are the preferred choice for underground water systems, ensuring longevity and purity in water transportation.

Additionally, most canned foods are stored in steel containers for preservation, as steel does not rust.

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Visualizing Cobalt Production by Country in 2023

The Democratic Republic of Congo accounts for 74% of the world’s cobalt output.

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Visualizing Cobalt Production by Country in 2023

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Cobalt is a critical mineral used in numerous commercial, industrial, and military applications. In recent years, it has gained attention as it is also necessary for batteries used in cell phones, laptops, and electric vehicles (EVs).

This graphic illustrates estimated cobalt production by country in 2023 in metric tons. The data is from the most recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Mineral Commodity Summaries, published in January 2024.

The DRC Produces 74% of Global Cobalt

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) accounts for 74% of the world’s cobalt output. Although the metal is found on a large scale in other parts of the world, like Australia, Europe, and Asia, the African nation holds the biggest reserve by far. Of the 11,000,000 metric tons of worldwide reserves, it is estimated that 6,000,000 metric tons are located in the DRC.

Countrymetric tonsPercentage
🇨🇩 DRC170,00074%
🇮🇩 Indonesia17,0007%
🇷🇺 Russia8,8004%
🇦🇺 Australia4,6002%
🇲🇬 Madagascar4,0002%
🇵🇭 Philippines3,8002%
🌍 Other Countries21,1009.00%
Total229,300100%

Since around 20% of the cobalt mined in the DRC originates from small-scale artisanal mines, often employing child labor, the extraction of the metal has been a point of intense debate. With a long history of conflict, political upheaval, and instability, the country is often listed among the poorest nations in the world.

Today, the EV sector constitutes 40% of the overall cobalt market.

China is the world’s leading consumer of cobalt, with nearly 87% of its consumption used by the lithium-ion battery industry.

In the U.S., 50% of cobalt consumed is used in superalloys, mainly in aircraft gas turbine engines.

Learn More About Critical Minerals From Visual Capitalist

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out The Critical Minerals to China, EU, and U.S. National Security. This visualization shows which minerals are essential to China, the United States, and the European Union.

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