Bauxite is the most important aluminium ore. It consists largely of the minerals gibbsite Al(OH)3, boehmite γ-AlO(OH), and diaspore α-AlO(OH), together with the iron oxides goethite and hematite, the clay mineral kaolinite and small amounts of anatase TiO2. It was named after the village Les Baux in southern France, where it was first discovered in 1821 by the geologist Pierre Berthier.
The lateritic bauxites occur in many countries of the tropical belt. They were formed by lateritization (see laterite) of various silicate rocks such as granite, gneiss, basalt, syenite and shale. Compared with iron-rich laterites, the formation of bauxites demands even more intense weathering conditions with a very good drainage. This enables dissolution of kaolinite and precipitation of gibbsite. Zones with highest aluminium content are frequently located below a ferruginous surface layer. The aluminium hydroxide in the lateritic bauxite deposits is almost exclusively gibbsite.
In 2007, Australia was the top producer of bauxite with almost one-third world share, followed by China, Brazil, Guinea, and Jamaica. Although aluminium demand is rapidly increasing, known reserves are sufficient to meet the needs for a considerable length of time. Increased aluminium recycling, which has the advantage of lowering the energy costs of production, will help extend bauxite reserves.
|Country||Mine production||Reserves||Reserve base|
|People's Republic of China||21,000||32,000||700,000||2,300,000|
|World total (rounded)||178,000||190,000||25,000,000||32,000,000|
Bauxite is strip mined (surface mining) because it is found at the surface, with little or no overburden. Approximately 95% of the world's bauxite production is processed into aluminium. Bauxites are typically classified according to their intended commercial application: metallurgical, abrasive, cement, chemical and refractory.
Bauxites are heated in pressure vessels with sodium hydroxide solution at 150-200 °C through which aluminium is dissolved as aluminate (Bayer process). After separation of ferruginous residue (red mud) by filtering, pure gibbsite is precipitated when the liquor is cooled and seeded with fine grained aluminium hydroxide. Gibbsite is converted into aluminium oxide by heating. This is molten at approx. 1000 °C by addition of cryolite as a flux and reduced to metallic aluminium by a highly energy-consumptive electrolytic process (the Hall-Héroult process).