Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Bauxite Question: No WMD, but popular with taggers

We are piggy backing on the previous post on Guinea. You can’t escape the fact that every news story on Guinea always points out that the country is the world’s leading producer of Bauxite. What does that mean? It’s as if Bauxite is an integral element in the fabrication of chemical weapons.

Well, apparently it isn’t. According to the United States Geological Survey, about 85 percent of mined Bauxite is used to make aluminum metal. Here’s the math: Four tons of dried bauxite is required to produce two tons of alumina, which produces one ton of aluminum metal.

Aluminum metal is popular, says the Arkansas Geological Survey, because it is light, has a low melting temperature and when alloyed with other metals, aluminum can become very strong. Aluminum is also easy to work with; it can be forged, rolled, cast, machined to just about anything: paint, beverage cans, baseball bats, airplanes and house siding. It carries high electrical conductivity and is very resistant to corrosion. All this adds up to make aluminum, behind iron and steel, the world’s third most popular metal.

Make that the world’s third most popular metal without significant deposits in the United States or Europe. In 2006, Australia the world’s largest producer of Bauxite, mined roughly 61,400 tons of the mineral, far ahead of Brazil (21,000 tons), China (20,000), Guinea (15,000) and Jamaica (14,000). However, Guinea is believed to posses the greatest amount Bauxite reserves – if the country can only successfully exploit them.

OM: Original Metal
As the USGS points out, it pays to go with the original when making alumina. One could use substitutes – “such as anorthosite, alunite, coal wastes, and oil shales” – but that would require building new plants and utilizing new technology. In the end, Bauxite remains the best choice for those who need their house re-sided. That’s why Guinea remains an important “partner” when its government acts like a bully state.

According to the U.S. Dept. of State, bauxite mining and alumina operations provide an estimated 80 percent of Guinea’s foreign exchange. There is a bit of mining going on. The state owns 51 percent of a joint venture with Alcoa and Alcan in the country’s most productive mine, and the government signed compacts for the construction of alumina refineries.

However, a number of obstacles stand in the way of more foreign investment, says the State Dept: a poorly developed infrastructure, rampant corruption (The 2006 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index ranks Guinea languishing near the bottom at 168 out of 177 countries), continuing political instability (see this post) and a lack of a transparent budgeting process. These red flags are not enough to scare off the Canadian mining firm Alcan from working with local NGOs (in a World Bank sponsored program) to help Guinea achieve the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals.

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