By Dr Mark Cooksey
Metal production has high energy demand, and in the next 15 years the competition for energy and rising energy costs are likely to have a significant impact on the profitability of metal production.
In fact, due to high energy costs and fluctuating metal prices, there are already periods where many plants are operating at a loss.
Future investment in the industry is already feeling the impact of current energy demands.
The recent power outages at the Portland and Tomago aluminium smelters in Australia, and the resulting discussions involving governments and the community, highlight the importance of secure energy supply. The Victorian and Australian Federal Governments are providing $230m in support to restart the Portland smelter, which is not without controversy. The closure of older electricity generation, such as the Hazelwood power station, and rising energy costs will further exacerbate these challenges.
This situation highlights the need for leaders to look to the future.
While optimisation of existing processes can alleviate some of the risk associated with high energy demand and rising energy costs, there is a limit to the effectiveness of this approach. Fundamentally, the energy consumption of metal production depends on the process used. There is a limit to the amount of incremental improvement possible whilst retaining the same metal production process.
Mitigating the risk of high energy demand and the effects of rising energy costs requires new processes for producing metals.
History shows that developing a new process can take 20 years from idea to commercialisation. Process development requires deep capabilities sustained over an extended period.
The process development cycle can be accelerated, but organisations rarely have the capabilities in-house or access to the breadth of talent they need to initiate and sustain the development.
However, when an organisation does secure access to the right resources, the results can be staggering.
There is rising demand for magnesium from car manufacturers for producing lightweight low-emissions vehicles. However, traditional processes for magnesium production are energy and labour-intensive.
Recognising this opportunity, CSIRO developed MagSonicTM, which produces magnesium using up to 80% less energy while generating up to 60% less carbon dioxide emissions, as compared with conventional processes.
Our team is working with Enirgi Group to further develop MagSonicTM to demonstration and commercial scale production.
The development of MagSonicTM highlights CSIRO’s ability to develop new processes from idea to commercialisation, to help reduce the risk and cost of the high energy demand associated with metal production.
The effects of high energy demand and rising energy costs on plant profitability and sustainability will continue to play out in our industry for the foreseeable future. And as we have seen in the case of the Portland aluminium smelter, this issue can have significant strategic implications.
At CSIRO, we have expertise in a wide range of capabilities required for developing new processes to produce metals, including extractive metallurgy, chemistry, electrochemistry, mathematical modelling, materials characterisation, and chemical engineering. We have extensive experience in process development and are working on accelerating process development through the greater use of modelling.
You too can employ CSIRO’s capabilities and technologies to develop new processes to reduce energy demand, as demonstrated by the MagSonicTM case study.
Contact the Sustainable Metals team on +61 3 9545 8865 or email Mark.Cooksey@csiro.au to leverage our expertise and experience.