Rusal turns to leaner cleaner aluminium

The production processes which fuelled the aluminium boom of the last century have become increasingly less cost effective, and the Rusal Irkutsk smelter is at the vanguard of efficiency improvements.

The glory days for the Soviet Union, as Sputnik, the first artificial satellite was launched into space, also helped bring about a focus on aluminium production, with the technological age seeing the lightweight metal increasingly used not just in space but also an increasing range of consumer products.

But the aluminium production processes which fuelled this boom have become outdated according to Vladimir Zhukov, Senior metals and mining analyst at Nomura.

“There is a standard technology which is called the solder back process. Most of the global aluminium producers use this technology. However, this technology is outdated. All the old smelters, irrespectively if they were built in Russia or elsewhere they normally use this process.”

Russian-based aluminium producer Rusal supplies 10 per cent of global demand. But over the past 20 years has built only one new smelter. Despite this, Igor Grinberg, General director, Irkutsk Aluminium Smelter, says that in 2009 the company’s production costs per metric ton were 1471 dollars – as much as 300 dollars less than its rivals.

“Rusal launched a cost-cutting program. There were some specific aspects for each smelter, but everywhere alumina and electric energy costs were cut down. Also expenditure costs per ton of aluminium were decreased. In our smelter the costs were cut by 17 per cent.”

With two new smelters being built, Rusal is in the process of modernization. Potlines – a Rusal in house creation – have just been installed in the Irkutsk smelter. There are 200 of them, each capable of producing 2 tons of aluminium per day. But it’s worth the trouble for the increase in efficiency, according to Head of the Casthouse, at the Rusal plant, Aleksandr Strelov

“After we installed new state of the art technology at the end of 2008 our output increased six fold. If earlier we had 4 people working and production was 5 tons an hour, then now we the same four people producing up to 27 tons.”

An important aspect about modern technology, just a little more important than productivity, is that it is cleaner. And with the biggest freshwater lake in the world – Baikal- just 75 kilometers away, its no small consideration.