November 29, 2010

Prestigious Accolade for Alcoa at National Engineering Awards

A scientific breakthrough in alumina refining has earned aluminium company Alcoa the ‘Australian Government Engineering Innovation Award’, at the 2010 Australian Engineering Excellence Awards in Canberra.

The Awards, run by Engineers Australia, represent the pinnacle of engineering excellence and acknowledge the professionalism and pursuit of excellence by engineers across the country. Finalists are known to be part of an elite group of Australia’s premier engineers, who have set global benchmarks for best practice in their fields and are leaders in the profession.

Alcoa’s global refining research and development team, the Technology Delivery Group (TDG), based in Western Australia, was recognised for innovative technology that uses naturally occurring microorganisms to consume oxalate - an impurity in the alumina refining process.

Oxalate removal is essential for high alumina quality and refinery productivity. The new process, known as 'continuous biological oxalate destruction', is a cost effective and environmentally friendly solution to the oxalate challenge. It is currently in operation at Alcoa’s Kwinana Refinery in Western Australia.

Alcoa TDG Research Chemist, Dr Amanda Tilbury, believes it is the first time a continuous biological removal process has been implemented for this type of industrial application. She said it was more than 10 years in the making and builds on early work started by other alumina producers.

“The alternative oxalate destruction technique is very expensive and energy intensive, so this new process is saving Alcoa millions of dollars while at the same time significantly reducing our energy use,” Ms Tilbury said.

Director of Research for Alcoa’s Global Refining System, Dr Ian Harrison, said: “This project is a great example of a dedicated and highly skilled team at TDG, working very closely with scientists from the University of Western Australia and CSIRO, to achieve a result which has exceeded our expectations and provides a platform for future installations in Alcoa refineries around the world.” 

“The research, engineering and construction of this process were completed in WA using world’s best practice bio technologies, and I’m very proud of what our team has achieved.”

Alcoa Residue Technical Manager, Dr David Cooling, who was at the core of the biological destruction process development, said: “This is one of the highest and most prestigious honours an engineer or scientist can win, so we are absolutely over the moon.”

“As an engineer, and in our sort of work, you can work on projects for several years before seeing any real results.  But once you find that piece to the puzzle which leads to a breakthrough like this, it is so rewarding and this win is a true honour,” he said.

Alcoa is expected to roll-out the technology to its other Western Australian refineries at Pinjarra and Wagerup.

Long-term, the process has the potential to consume all of the nearly 200 metric tonnes of oxalate removed each day by Alcoa’s nine refineries around the world, while also reducing energy usage.

Since 1968 Alcoa's TDG has been developing innovative new equipment and processes for cleaner, more efficient production at Alcoa refineries worldwide, and consistently helps to solve environmental challenges through new technology. TDG employs around 80 scientists, engineers, research and support staff.

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Background to the Awards:
Each year the national judging panel consider the nominating winners of Division and Society Awards for an Australian Engineering Excellence Award. As Award winners in their own right, finalists represent the very best of engineering, with the national judging panel seeking to identify those unique finalists who demonstrate outstanding excellence, innovation and best practice.

Alcoa was eligible to enter the national Awards after taking out the top honour under the ‘Environment’ category in the Western Australian Engineering Excellence Awards in September 2010.

Background to Oxalate:
Oxalate is a natural product found in soil and some plants. When decaying plant matter is carried underground via water, some of it sticks to bauxite ore and enters the alumina refining process, where it degrades into oxalate. Considered an impurity, oxalate must be removed for the process to work efficiently and for the alumina to meet specification.

Background to Continuous Biological Oxalate Destruction:
The biological destruction process uses a series of tanks containing warm liquid and naturally occurring bacteria growing on plastic carriers. Oxygen and nutrients are added, and oxalate is introduced as a feed source. The bacteria consume the oxalate.

The development of this technology has supported the PhD’s of both Amanda Tilbury and Naomi McSweeney.

Media contact:
Sarah Tempest 0404 800 417