Bauxite: A brief history

You’d be excused — given its prevalence in the modern world, from beverage cans to jet engines — for thinking that aluminium has been around since the dawn of time. But unlike silver, lead, iron, and other commodities whose usage has been a human staple for millenia, pure aluminium was only discovered in the early 19th century — and at the time was more valuable than some precious metals.

But the transition from anonymity to popularity would not have been possible without the diligence of one Pierre Berthier, a geologist and mining engineer who, on 23 March 1821, in the tiny village of Le Baux, France, struck upon a reddish, clay-like material. This, we know now, was bauxite, the precursor ore for the overwhelming majority of aluminium production.

Nor would that transition have been possible without the efforts of American chemist Charles Martin Hall, who in 1886 devised an inexpensive method for producing aluminium by dissolving alumina — obtained largely from bauxite — in molten cryolite before electrolysing the molten salt bath. Hall, in partnership with Pittsburgh-based metallurgist Alfred E. Hunt, ultimately went on to form Alcoa (NYSE:AA). 

Coincidentally, the same process was discovered at nearly the same time by the Frenchman Paul Héroult, and became known as the Hall-Héroult process.

At the time, alumina was produced from bauxite through a process developed by Henri Étienne Sainte-Claire Deville in 1859, known as the Deville process. It was a commendable early stage method that involved the direct reaction of metallic sodium with aluminium chloride. The aluminium bar Deville produced was considered so precious it was exhibited next to the French crown jewels.

It wasn’t until 1888, however, that the industrial refinement of bauxite really took off, with the development of a new process by Karl Josef Bayer. Working in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Bayer found that by using a pure seed of aluminium hydroxide, a crystalline precipitate formed that was more economical than other processes.

Ultimately, it was these developments that caused aluminium prices to fall some 80%, making it the readily available product we have today. In 1888, for example, aluminium cost US$4.86 (A$7.53) per pound. In 1893, it was US$0.78 per pound, and by the late 1930s cost just US$0.20 per pound, and boasted more than 2000 applications.

Of course, global production went the other way. In 1900, the world produced just 8,000 tonnes of aluminium. By the year 2000, that figure had ballooned to 24.5 million tonnes, and by 2023, to roughly 70.5 million.

Storied history

In the end, however, this is a bauxite story. Without bauxite, the global aluminium market would look very different. And although the clay-like material might have a short history, it’s not one without its ups and downs.

“Up until about 20 years ago, maybe 25 years ago, the majority of bauxite was really integrated,” Simon Wensley, CEO and Managing Director of Metro Mining (ASX:MMI), tells Mining.com.au.

Based in Brisbane, Metro Mining owns the 1,900km2 Bauxite Hills Mine in northern Queensland, which is in the latter stages of an expansion program designed to lift bauxite production to almost 7 million tonnes a year.

“People owned integrated supply chains. That didn’t necessarily mean the refinery was sitting on top of the bauxite, although often it was.”

Wensley cites what he calls the ‘WA model’ — Alcoa’s Kwinana and South32’s (ASX:S32) Worsley operations, for example. Eventually, some operators exhausted their resources and revitalised themselves with more of a merchant-esque bent, helping to set up what would become a more lively traded market.

Predictably, the integrated model was one quickly adopted by China.

“China has been an alumina producer for decades and decades, and they were largely using domestic bauxite. That was the model,” Wensley explains.

“Indonesia and Australia were also supplying a little bit of bauxite from a merchant or traded perspective over that period.”

Soon, China had built power plants and smelters, and was backwards-integrating into alumina when it realised maintaining a constant supply to these facilities could present a challenge.

“When I was working at Rio Tinto, I was in the bauxite and alumina business from about 2006,” Wensley says.

“We signed, myself and my team, the first two or three long-term contract-traded bauxite contracts into China from Australia. That kept growing and growing and growing, and then you saw a separate dynamic, which was that even the existing bauxite being mined in China started to dwindle.”

Combined with a crackdown on safety and environment concerns, China found itself the victim of a double-whammy effect, and turned to Australia to boost its supplies, in particular the likes of Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO), which operates the Weipa and Gove bauxite mines in Queensland and the Northern Territory, respectively.

But China wasn’t quite able to get its security of supply Down Under, and so turned to the African nation of Guinea instead, which at the time had been supplying bauxite largely to the European market.

This was compounded last year by export bans in Indonesia, which aimed to keep resources onshore and foster a domestic industry. As a result, between 20 million and 30 million tonnes was wiped off the global market.

In Wensley’s estimation: “Guinea has gone, in terms of supplying the Asia Pacific region, from zero to almost 90 million tonnes in 10 years.”

Next chapter

According to the United States Geological Survey, Guinea’s bauxite reserves account for roughly 7.4 billion tonnes of the 30 billion worldwide total, while Vietnam accounts for some 5.8 billion tonnes and Australia is home to 3.5 billion.

Production-wise, Australia comes out on top, pumping out more than a quarter of 2023’s global production at 110 million tonnes. Guinea came next with 82 million tonnes, followed by China with 60 million and Brazil with 35 million.

These are figures which — certainly in the years post-COVID — have held relatively stable. But it’s the price history of bauxite that seems to have instilled a good degree of confidence.

According to commodity research firm CM Group, both the Guinean and Australian bauxite prices climbed roughly 30% from January 2022 to January 2024. As of the start of this year, the price of Australian bauxite was hovering around US$50 per tonne.

“Those are average delivered prices to China, as captured by a consultant who follows the vessels and calculates all of the delivered prices. So you can see it’s been a pretty consistent rise,” Wensley says.

“The Guinea price flattened out a bit during the middle of last year, then it rose again once the Indonesians had pulled out. Guinea picked up about 80% of the void left by Indonesia.

Bauxite has been one of the most consistent performances from a price perspective over the last couple of years”

One reason why the price is less volatile — there’s a lot of contracted volume here. Both Rio Tinto and (Metro Mining) tend to contract the vast proportion of our volume, so we don’t sell a lot on spot. There’s no index, there’s no traded market. It’s not very liquid.

But bauxite has been one of the most consistent performances from a price perspective over the last couple of years.”

The prevailing outlook for the next few years is a positive one, too.

“Whilst global resources are sufficient to meet present and forecast world demand, emerging factors such as domestic electronics manufacturing, the increasing trend of electric vehicles, and metallurgical purposes may boost demand for the market,” Louis Varrasso, a portfolio manager at Peak Asset Management, tells Mining.com.au.

Varrasso also noted that burgeoning innovation in the automotive and aerospace sectors, coupled with other technological advancements, would likely underpin the strength of the bauxite market for the rest of this decade.

“Not only driven by industrial demand for aluminium, but also environmental shifts and geopolitical factors that may influence production and demand.”

Indeed, bauxite has — in relatively short order — established itself as a necessary part of modern life. Global aluminium production, for example, now exceeds that of all other non-ferrous metals combined. It makes sense that as these markets continue to evolve, bauxite will be an interesting one to watch.

Write to Oliver Gray at Mining.com.au

Images: Metro Mining, NAIF, Hydro, Bloomberg
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Written By Oliver Gray
Originally from Perth, Oliver has a keen interest long-form journalism. He has written for a number of publications and was most recently Contributing Editor of The Market Herald’s opinion section, Art of the Essay.