An aluminium smelter the size of Qatalum, developed by the local Qatar Petroleum and its joint venture partner Hydro of Norway at Mesaieed in Qatar, has huge raw materials requirements. An immense logistics network is needed to ensure ingredients of the right quantity and quality are available on site at the right time.

Products are shipped in from all over the world and unloaded at Qatalum’s jetty at Mesaieed port to feed the 585,000-tonne-a-year (t/y) plant.

In addition to lending its technology and project management skills to the construction of Qatalum, Hydro, as one of the world’s largest and most experienced aluminium producers, has assisted with the procurement of raw materials and establishing contacts with key suppliers to the industry.

“We have a cooperation agreement with Hydro. They are used to sourcing from the market, so we can get raw materials of the right quality,” explains Pal Vigeland, group casthouse manager at Qatalum.

Raw materials

The main raw material required is aluminium oxide, or alumina. Alumina is refined bauxite, and four tonnes of bauxite are needed to produce two tonnes of alumina, which in turn make one tonne of aluminium.

The Qatalum smelter will consume 1.3 million t/y of alumina, once it is running at full capacity from 2011.

The alumina is sourced under long-term agreements from refineries in Brazil and in Western Australia, in regular shipments of about 42,000 tonnes each. Some of the alumina is supplied by Hydro itself, as it owns stakes in alumina refineries in Brazil.

The Norwegian firm has a 34 per cent shareholding in the world’s largest alumina refinery at Alunorte in northern Brazil. Its alumina output was increased to 6.5 million t/y in 2008. Hydro also owns a 20 per cent stake in a planned new refinery with Brazilian mining company Vale and Dubai Aluminium (Dubal), which will have an initial capacity of 1.9 million t/y when it starts up in 2012. Vale is the majority shareholder with a 61 per cent stake, and Dubal owns the remainder.

Once the alumina arrives in Mesaieed, it is transported from the dock to storage silos by a 150-metre conveyer belt. Alumina is kept in two silos, each able to hold 65,000 tonnes. A minimum supply of 52,000 tonnes – enough for two weeks of production – is kept on site in case of disruptions to delivery schedules.

Another essential raw material, petroleum coke, is also transported via the conveyor. Each year, Qatalum will require 200,000 tonnes of coke. This is stored in three smaller silos, each with a capacity of 25,000 tonnes. Coke is used, along with coal tar pitch, to make anodes that are used in the electrolysis process whereby pure aluminium is extracted from the alumina. The coke and pitch are imported under short-term contracts from India, China and Kuwait.

“It is important to have several sources to maintain security of supply,” says Jan Arve Haugan, chief executive officer of Qatalum.

The first 3,500-tonne consignment of pitch arrived at the end of October in a specialist vessel that keeps the tar at a constant 200 degrees Celsius. At the port, the pitch is pumped into heated tanks, a process that takes up to 12 hours. The Qatalum smelter requires about 50,000 tonnes of pitch a year.

The other raw material requirements are much smaller, but they also come from far and wide. For instance, soda ash is imported from Spain and Holland; aluminium flouride, of which the plant will consume about 10,000 t/y, comes from Italy and Norway, while calcium chloride is shipped to Qatar from China.

Low-cost gas

There is one raw material vital to aluminium production that Qatalum is able to source locally, and that is gas.

Access to low-cost gas supplies through joint owner Qatar Petroleum will enable Qatalum to rank among the world’s most cost-effective aluminium producers.

Electricity typically accounts for 27 per cent of the cost of producing aluminium, with alumina only slightly higher at 29 per cent. Qatar may not be blessed with the various mineral deposits needed to make aluminium, but through its giant North gas field it has abundant supplies of one of the most essential ingredients, which fully justifies the state’s decision to invest in the industry.