Denis Mazerolle explores the history and development of Canada-based producer of high-purity aluminium, Nature Alu.
Nature Alu is a Canadian high-purity aluminium producer – the only high-purity producer in the Americas. They offer 10kg ingots and 650kg sows, varying from purity grade P0101 up to 4N8 (99,998% Al).
The history of Nature Alu
The company was founded in 2016 by two former metallurgists and skilful managers with vast experience in the aluminium industry. Combining their technical background and managerial skillsets, they decided to start a business in a field requiring technical knowhow and expertise: high-purity aluminium production. By doing so, they looked for opportunities to fill a gap in the market for new high-tech applications, to position them as a key player in the energy transition.
Shortly after, the company then expanded with the appointment of two additional partners who were well established as successful entrepreneurs. These two very dedicated and motivated new associates provided the business with the time, money and experience needed to accelerate the launch of Nature Alu.
Building a new business from the ground up is a long journey. The purification process development was indeed the main challenge. It has been conjointly developed in the region of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, in Quebec, Canada, between Nature Alu and Dynamic Concept – one of the shareholders. Universities and government research centres also contributed to the project during its R&D. The first purification unit was built in the pilot plant in 2017 and operated for more than two years. It was only after a long series of successful tests and demonstrations of the technology that the investment was initiated for the production plant, just a few kilometres from the pilot plant.
The construction of the production plant began in 2019 in an industrial complex owned by the fourth shareholder, Gestion Proco. Nature Alu’s nearly 5000m2 plant allows the potential for future expansion should the need arise. During the construction, Dynamic Concept ensured the project management by providing complete engineering solutions as well as the commissioning of vital equipment, such as melting furnaces and purification and casting units. The project was successfully finalised in early 2021 within budget and on schedule, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The production capacity of Nature Alu’s brand new state-of-the-art plant is 3500 MT/year of 4N (production capacity can vary depending on the level of purity produced).
High-purity aluminium outlook
High-purity aluminium is widely used in many emerging technology applications, such as electrolytic capacitors, lithium-ion and aluminium-air batteries, quantum computers, semi-conductors, 3D metal printing, specialty alloys for the defence and aircraft industry, etc. The market is currently experiencing significant growth and is expected to expand even further in the years to come.
There are about 15 high-purity aluminium producers in the world and most of them are located in China. Therefore, high-purity aluminium is mostly produced and consumed there. Japan, Russia, and Norway also produce high-purity aluminium of grade 4N and above (99,99%+ Al).
Regarding purification methods being used worldwide, there are two main ones: segregation (also called fractional crystallization) and three-layer electrolysis (also known as the Hoopes process). About half of the worldwide producers use segregation and the other half is using three-layer electrolysis.
In the segregation method, the initial molten aluminium is maintained slightly above its melting point (660.3°C) and then solidifies over time into crystals of purity greater than the initial concentration of molten aluminium. Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) could not have said it better, stating: “Nothing is lost, nothing is created: everything is transformed.”
Indeed, throughout the process, the majority of impurities, the eutectic elements (Si, Fe, Cu, Mg, Mn, Zn, Ga, Ni, B, etc.), will mostly remain in the liquid part, making this one concentrated in impurities. The few other impurities, the peritectic elements (V, Cr, Ti and Zr), will tend to be incorporated into the solidified crystals. As the purification progresses, the aluminium formed in the solid-state becomes purer while the liquid phase becomes concentrated in impurities. At the end of the purification cycle, the concentrated liquid is drained, and the bloom (solid-state aluminium) is remelted and cast into any required shape to be sold as high-purity aluminium.
Nature Alu’s purification technology
Nature Alu uses the segregation process. Their ultramodern technology ensures that the optimal conditions are met to allow crystallization and to get the most refined crystals possible to purify aluminium. Their fully automated and low-energy technology, combined with the sourcing of ultra-low carbon footprint feedstock from Quebec aluminium smelters, allows them to produce high-purity aluminium with the lowest carbon footprint in the industry. This is a major factor that distinguishes Nature Alu from its competitors. Even if their production capacity is relatively small compared to large Chinese producers, they can adapt to future customer growth and rapidly increase it.
A promising future
With the current geopolitical context, the supply chain in the Americas and Europe is worrying and increasing complexity. Nature Alu is seeking to fill a void in these two regions by being a flexible new supplier of high-purity aluminium. The team will do what it takes to establish Nature Alu as a key supplier for quality, reliability, and supply chain efficiency. They will also do everything they can to be an active player in the energy transition of the next decade, particularly by supplying one of the critical materials for the battery industry: high-purity aluminium.
Nature Alu is proud of the work that has been done so far. Thanks to the dedication of each team member, the process efficiency and purity performance are continuously increasing.
Furthermore, to meet the most specific customer needs, Nature Alu is constantly innovating and developing new products. Their high-purity aluminium will soon be available in granules (pellets/beads/shots), billets and slabs, in addition to other existing products, ingots and sows.
Finally, Nature Alu recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with DUBAL Holding, a leading investment company, to start a high-purity aluminium production project in Dubai. This project could lead to a potential joint venture and promising new business opportunities for both companies.
Please note, this article will also appear in the tenth edition of our quarterly publication.