The Hall-Heroult process
Smelting of alumina into metallic aluminum takes place in a steel vat called a reduction pot. The bottom of the pot is lined with carbon, which acts as one electrode (conductor of electric current) of the system. The opposite electrodes consist of a set of carbon rods suspended above the pot; they are lowered into an electrolyte solution and held about 1.5 in (3.8 cm) above the surface of the molten aluminum that accumulates on the floor of the pot. Reduction pots are arranged in rows (potlines) consisting of 50-200 pots that are connected in series to form an electric circuit. Each potline can produce 66,000-110,000 tons (60,000-100,000 metric tons) of aluminum per year. A typical smelting plant consists of two or three potlines.
8 Within the reduction pot, alumina crystals are dissolved in molten cryolite at a temperature of 1,760-1,780° F (960-970° C) to form an electrolyte solution that will conduct electricity from the carbon rods to the carbon-lined bed of the pot. A direct current (4-6 volts and 100,000-230,000 amperes) is passed through the solution. The resulting reaction breaks the bonds between the aluminum and oxygen atoms in the alumina molecules. The oxygen that is released is attracted to the carbon rods, where it forms carbon dioxide. The freed aluminum atoms settle to the bottom of the pot as molten metal.
The smelting process is a continuous one, with more alumina being added to the cryolite solution to replace the decomposed compound. A constant electric current is maintained. Heat generated by the flow of electricity at the bottom electrode keeps the contents of the pot in a liquid state, but a crust tends to form atop the molten electrolyte. Periodically, the crust is broken to allow more alumina to be added for processing. The pure molten aluminum accumulates at the bottom of the pot and is siphoned off. The pots are operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
9 A crucible is moved down the potline, collecting 9,000 lb (4,000 kg) of molten aluminum, which is 99.8% pure. The metal is transferred to a holding furnace and then cast (poured into molds) as ingots. One common technique is to pour the molten aluminum into a long, horizontal mold. As the metal moves through the mold, the exterior is cooled with water, causing the aluminum to solidify. The solid shaft emerges from the far end of the mold, where it is sawed at appropriate intervals to form ingots of the desired length. Like the smelting process itself, this casting process is also continuous.
Alumina, the intermediate substance that is produced by the Bayer process and that constitutes the raw material for the Hall-Heroult process, is also a useful final product. It is a white, powdery substance with a consistency that ranges from that of talcum powder to that of granulated sugar. It can be used in a wide range of products such as laundry detergents, toothpaste, and fluorescent light bulbs. It is an important ingredient in ceramic materials; for example, it is used to make false teeth, spark plugs, and clear ceramic windshields for military airplanes. An effective polishing compound, it is used to finish computer hard drives, among other products. Its chemical properties make it effective in many other applications, including catalytic converters and explosives. It is even used in rocket fuel—400,000 lb (180,000 kg) is consumed in every space shuttle launch. Approximately 10% of the alumina produced each year is used for applications other than making aluminum.
The largest waste product generated in bauxite refining is the tailings (ore refuse) called "red mud." A refinery produces about the same amount of red mud as it does alumina (in terms of dry weight). It contains some useful substances, like iron, titanium, soda, and alumina, but no one has been able to develop an economical process for recovering them. Other than a small amount of red mud that is used commercially for coloring masonry, this is truly a waste product. Most refineries simply collect the red mud in an open pond that allows some of its moisture to evaporate; when the mud has dried to a solid enough consistency, which may take several years, it is covered with dirt or mixed with soil.
Several types of waste products are generated by decomposition of carbon electrodes during the smelting operation. Aluminum plants in the United States create significant amounts of greenhouse gases, generating about 5.5 million tons (5 million metric tons) of carbon dioxide and 3,300 tons (3,000 metric tons) of perfluorocarbons (compounds of carbon and fluorine) each year.
Approximately 120,000 tons (110,000 metric tons) of spent potlining (SPL) material is removed from aluminum reduction pots each year. Designated a hazardous material by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), SPL has posed a significant disposal problem for the industry. In 1996, the first in a planned series of recycling plants opened; these plants transform SPL into glass frit, an intermediate product from which glass and ceramics can be manufactured. Ultimately, the recycled SPL appears in such products as ceramic tile, glass fibers, and asphalt shingle granules.(Via:Made How)