I would like to report here on the most advanced component that we are developing within the context of the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS): Aluminum Extraction from Clay. Clay is aluminum silicate. Aluminum is the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust behind silicon and oxygen, and iron is the next after aluminum. Metals are the essence of advanced technological civilization. Currently, aluminum is extracted from bauxite, a strategic ore. For the GVCS, we’d like to be able to produce aluminum from common materials – clay. The ability to produce aluminum on a local scale would have profound societal effects, one of them being the ability to produce advanced civilization from completely local materials. This is the overall concept that we aim to demonstrate with the GVCS. Historically, societies were fueled by local resources, until about the 1950s, when transportation became cheap enough that products were shipped across the globe several times before they were used. This is not a resilient design for society.
On the last California Tour, I met with Edward McCullough of McCullough and Associates, a consulting firm working on big picture solutions. We discussed a closed-loop method of producing aluminum from clay via a hydrofluoric acid leach process.
Edward worked on this with respect to extraction of titanium from coal flyash. The same process can be used to extract aluminum from clay, and a patent for this process has expired this year. The end result is aluminum oxide, which is then converted to aluminum with processes such as the Hall-Heroult process. It is possible to build a 6,000 square foot facility that could produce about 1 ton of pure aluminum from local clay per day. We may be able to build such a facility for about $50k, under drastic cost reduction assumptions of open source economic development.
Aluminum extraction is certainly way beyond lower tech endeavors such as building tractors or planting sweet potatoes at Factor e Farm. However, if we wish to take full responsibility for ethical production of what we use to survive – then producing metals is part of the puzzle. We can begin with steel scrap meltdown with the induction furnace, but as the last step, we need to show that we can also produce advanced materials from the ‘dirt and twigs under our feet.’ Far out.
For those screaming at the potential evil of aluminum production, there are several points to consider. For environmental ethics – the process is 100% closed loop, in that a small amount (about 100 grams) of hydroflouric acid that never leaves the system is used in the process.For the extractive nature of the process – think of this as you dig a house foundation or a pond, and a small part of the clay dug is sufficient to create an entire mechanical infrastructure (about 30,000 lb of metal) to support an entire village of 200 people. This is much better than strip mining or invading East Timor for its bauxite reserves. For those concerned about precious soil food webs – we can enhance soil food webs by terraforming degraded areas with mechanical equipment that is thus produced – for added moisture retention, erosion control, and waterworks.
I am particularly curious where all this work will end up. Personally, I think that we are in the stone age of ecological industry. Any large-scale, destructive industrial process can be replaced with an open source, appropriate-scale, earth-friendly, beautiful alternative. Technology can be a way for us to reconnect to nature – if that is our intention. We just have a bad taste in our mouth on the point of industry – because typical motives have historically been extractive. That does not have to be the case.