There are many concerns about non-renewable resources and their impacts on the environment. As we look at the environmental impacts of aluminum, one may ask, are there also effects of this abundant metal?
Well, that is a question to be answered.
Aluminum ore, which has relatively humble beginnings as the soft, red, mineral-rich rock known as bauxite, is extremely precious and contains boehmite, diaspore, and gibbsite in addition to clay, iron hydroxides, and free silica.
More than 130 million tons of bauxite are taken globally annually, and current projections indicate that we have enough reserves to last for 400 years.
The world’s top producers of bauxite continue to be Asia (including China and India), Central and South America (including Venezuela, Brazil, Jamaica, Guyana, and Suriname), Russia, Africa, Iceland, and Australia. Bauxite is found in tropical, subtropical, and volcanic regions with excellent drainage beneath a ferruginous surface layer.
In actuality, Australia fulfills about one-third of our total global needs.
Products made of aluminum are renowned for having a long lifespan and being infinitely recyclable. Aluminum may be recycled indefinitely without losing its quality. It reduces the initial investment required for power during the production process.
Aluminum is a strong, entirely recyclable, and incredibly energy-efficient material.
The Extraction Process
Workers can locate unprocessed bauxite by using open-pit mining, often referred to as surface, open-cast, or strip mining, in which sizable swathes of dirt are excavated very close to the surface to remove valuable resources.
The required metal is then dissolved at extremely high temperatures in a caustic chemical bath of sodium hydroxide after the material has been transferred to a smelter or reduction plant.
The mixture is filtered, heated to 1,000 degrees Celsius, and then cryolite is added to the molten solution.
The liquefied aluminum can then be successfully extracted, cleaned, and poured into solid ingots through electrolysis (the application of a very strong electrical current). For every 4 tons of bauxite mined, 1 ton of aluminum oxide is generated.
Environmental Impact of Aluminum
Aluminum in itself has a low environmental impact; in fact, it can be recycled, but the production of aluminum rods, planes, and the like has huge environmental impacts, from the mining of the metal to the refining, smelting, and molding of this metal.
1. Impact of Production of Aluminum
Overall, the production of aluminum from raw bauxite is a very energy-intensive process that uses a lot of water, electricity, and other resources (that is the main reason why power plants are built solely to support the aluminum industry).
A staggering amount of electricity is needed to produce pure aluminum since it is such a stable mineral. Coal, one of the most notoriously polluted fuels in existence, provides half of the smelting energy.
According to the EPA, the perfluorocarbons released during the aluminum smelting process are 9,200 times more detrimental to global warming than carbon dioxide.
When bauxite is taken out of the ground, the strip-mine procedure eliminates all local vegetation in the mining region, resulting in the loss of food and habitat for nearby species as well as severe soil erosion.
The leftover hazardous mine tailings and caustic red sludge are frequently dumped into mine pits that have been excavated, where they eventually leak into aquifers and contaminate nearby water supplies.
All refining procedures consume variable amounts of water and power, which can result in increased carbon emissions, pollution of the air and water, as well as noise and heat pollution.
Carbon dioxide, perfluorocarbons, sodium fluoride, sulfur dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, and a long list of other greenhouse gases are emitted during smelting and processing and have been shown to cover surrounding regions with poisonous fumes.
Combustion byproducts, caustic aerosols, dust from bauxite, limestone, burned lime, alumina, and sodium salt are a few of the particles generated during processing that are known to degrade air quality.
Recycling used aluminum uses only 5% of the energy and emits only 5% of the greenhouse gases compared to creating new aluminum from raw bauxite.
Aluminum is infinitely recyclable and retains all of its integrity even after being repeatedly melted down. Additionally, the entire recycling process may be completed in less than 60 days.
Recycling just four cases of beer, or 96 cans, results in energy savings sufficient to run a laptop for well over a month.
Despite variations in the price of scrap, recycling aluminum is cost-effective and generates a steady stream of cash for local governments, nonprofit organizations, and other social welfare programs.
Aluminum beverage cans continue to be disposed of in landfills all over the world. When these cans are burned, hazardous substances are released into the air, and it can take up to 500 years for the cans to degrade completely.
Recycling already-produced aluminum products prevent the creation of any new waste and save valuable landfill space.
2. Water Pollution
Aluminum is a substantial source of water contamination, even though it is rarely highlighted. This is mainly because of its widespread natural occurrence and industrial use.
Due to its exceptional qualities, including its lightweight nature, corrosion resistance, long life, and electrical conductivity, aluminum is a useful material. As a result, aluminum is used in many different industries, such as electrical transmission lines, packaging, building, and transportation, to name a few.
Due to volcanic activity, acidic springs, and rock weathering, aluminum is released into the aquatic environment in both natural and man-made forms. The emission of anthropogenic aluminum is caused by human activities such as manufacturing, aluminum production, agriculture, and industrial processes that produce wastewater and solid waste.
If released untreated, alum (potassium aluminum sulfate), a substance used to clarify drinking water and wastewater, can potentially be a source of aluminum.
High quantities of aluminum are primarily found in freshwater as opposed to marine water because freshwater’s lower pH than ocean water encourages aluminum’s solubility.
Increased aluminum levels in water are largely a result of industrial activity-related acid rain, which lowers the pH of the water and encourages the dissolution of both anthropogenic and natural forms.
As a result, aluminum is a constant source of freshwater contamination in both urban and rural areas, having harmful effects on aquatic life and the potential to eventually reach the human food chain.
3. Effect of Aluminum on Aquatic Life
When present in large concentrations, aluminum (Al), i.e., downstream industrial point sources of Al-rich process water, has long been known to be hazardous to aquatic freshwater creatures.
The main cause of aluminum’s current environmental consequences is acidic precipitation; this causes catchments to become more acidic, which raises the amount of aluminum in soil solutions and freshwaters.
Aluminum has been shown to have a detrimental effect on a variety of beneficial freshwater algae species. Because they boost the bioavailability of dissolved oxygen for the creatures below, freshwater algae are essential to preserving a healthy synergistic ecosystem.
Physicochemical variables like water temperature, pH, and salinity all affect how harmful aluminum is to aquatic life.
On the other hand, it is well-recognized that aluminum can be used to limit hazardous algal blooms by preventing the availability of a crucial nutrient (phosphorus).
The natural ecosystem is at risk from the downstream industrial point sources of aluminum-rich process water, even if the low concentration of aluminum in water is not very harmful.
A hazardous chemical in the aquatic environment, aluminum impairs the osmoregulatory function of creatures that breathe through their gills, such as fish and invertebrates (i.e., maintaining appropriate body pressure in water by aquatic organisms by controlling the uptake of salts and ions from water).
Aluminum can also interact chemically with other water pollutants, having unexpected effects on biodiversity.
Although it is frequently claimed that low concentrations have no harmful effects on aquatic life, it has been proven that prolonged exposure to these levels is toxic to some species of aquatic plants, zebrafish, fathead minnows, rotifers, and snails.
Although there is a limited amount of research examining aluminum’s impact on aquatic life, this is still a hotly debated subject because the amount of aluminum in water depends on the physical, chemical, and environmental factors that affect an aquatic ecosystem.
Nevertheless, there is always a risk if regulatory standards for permissible aluminum levels are not followed because this heavy metal can eventually get into drinking water and then the human food chain.
The flowchart in the recently published EPA study displays the origins, destiny, and impact of aluminum on aquatic life.
4. Effects on Birds and Mammals
Dietary organically complexed aluminum may readily be absorbed and interfere with crucial metabolic functions in mammals and birds. It may also have synergistic effects with other pollutants. Similar to animals, it appears that aluminum mostly affects enzyme systems vital for nutrition absorption.
5. Impacts on Terrestrial Plants
High quantities of inorganic monomeric aluminum hurt the mycorrhizal and fine root systems of terrestrial plants. Plants may collect aluminum. Thus, infected plants with aluminum could serve as a link for the metal to enter terrestrial food chains.
Environmental Impacts of Aluminum – FAQs
What environmental issues are involved in making aluminum?
The environmental issues which are involved in making aluminum are high carbon emissions, air, water, noise, and heat pollution. These environmental issues are associated with all the refining processes involved in making aluminum which employs high levels of electricity and water.
Is making aluminum bad for the environment?
Aluminum though of very high importance to the world of today has negative impacts on the environment when it’s been processed from the mine, but recycling this material would be adaptable to a range of uses and would imply a low impact on the environment.
Is aluminum an environmentally friendly metal?
Though the production of aluminum for the mine can be dangerous to the environment, this metal is one of the most environmentally friendly metals on Earth and this is because aluminum can be recycled multiple times to create the same product.
How does aluminum in water affect the environment?
Aluminum in water is hazardous to aquatic habitats. they act as a toxic agent that causes loss of plasma- and hemolymph ions which leads to osmoregulatory failure in gill-breathing animals such as fish and invertebrates.
As we have seen, aluminum is very important to the world of today, but the production of this abundant metal from the mine is harmful to the environment. This metal can be recycled. So, let’s adopt the recycling of aluminum at all levels and in every society.
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A passion-driven environmentalist by heart. Lead content writer at EnvironmentGo.
I strive to educate the public about the environment and its problems.
It has always been about nature, we ought to protect not destroy.