Open Source Aluminum

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 ClayClay 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.

Open Source Aluminum from Clay from Open Source Ecology on Vimeo.

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.


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  2. William

    Yo, Wheres the Chipin button for this? I’m excited for this venue!

  3. Micah Glasser


    I admire your intelligence and imagination but I am most impressed by your singularity of purpose and steadfastness. The work you do gives me inspiration and hope for humanity. The enlightenment vision is not dead. We can harness science and technology to “dwell poetically with the Earth” as Heidegger once said. Continue your work knowing that you are the hand of the zeitgeist. I believe that your vision of society is perhaps the best, most realistic answer for creating a new society within the shell of the old and returning to sanity before our collective madness destines the apocalypse.
    Just a word of encouragement from a fan.

  4. Eric H

    Errr, wouldn’t extracting aluminum from the local landfill or dumpsters be a much better investment of your time? All the aluminum you need is probably sitting around in landfills, and I’m not talking about just the aluminum cans. All kinds of stuff is made from aluminum, and then just pitched.

    1. Marcin

      That depends on whether there are dumpsters and landfills available, especially as standard global supplies of these materials are depleted. Our experiment aims to demonstrate what can be done with a stable supply of natural, on-site resources, as opposed to other potentially not-so-stable sources.

  5. Rasmus

    Yes, chipin button please Marcin.

  6. Rasmus

    Landfills will probably disappear from the face of the earth in the next 20 years, once peak oil hits the fan. Landfills contain considerable amounts of gold, copper and other metals. The Japanese are already getting ready to mine old landfills.
    Even with having a landfill, it might still be easier to extract aluminum from clay. The aluminum oxide content of clay is much higher than the aluminum content in a landfill. Therefore, let’s just figure out how to do the clay extraction, convert the oxides to metals and we’re set.

  7. mimarob

    Also a great way to spend the surplus solar energy you might have available during summer, almost as good as being able to store the energy.

  8. modilion

    Aluminum silicate processing is a noble goal, but the hydrofluoric acid/Hall Heroult process is, in my opinion, not the best route for a small scale purification. The Hall Heroult process hasn’t changed much in 100 years and requires extremely high temperatures combined with large volumes of CO2 production from the consumption of carbon anode. Additionally, the hydrofluoric acid methods were originally contemplated for use on the moon where a large spill or industrial scale accident would cause little or no harm, because hydrofluoric acid is frightfully dangerous.

    hydrofluoric acid is extremely toxic and corrosive. The advantage of the hydrofluoric acid dissolution is that hydrofluoric acid is capable of oxidizing almost any mineral, and from there, standard wet chemistry separation techniques can be used to purify each metal cation of interest. This is also the major problem with the technique; hydrofluoric acid corrodes anything, particularly people. Every piece of hardware used needs to be coated in fluoropolymers or special ceramics to avoid corrosion, and laboratory ventilation systems are a must.

    The aluminum silicates from clay offers a possible second option for extracting the aluminum and the silicon. From a 1973 patent by T Sullivan, “Process for producing aluminum and silicon from aluminum silicon alloys”, aluminum silicate can be reduced to an aluminum silicon alloy by standard carbothermal processes, and from there, separated by melt electrolysis into aluminum and silicon. New research into solid state electrolysis has shown that alumina and quartz can both undergo electro deoxidation in NaCl/CaCl2 molten salt into aluminum and silicon. Likely, aluminum silicate can also undergo solid electro deoxidation under similar conditions. To my knowledge, the research has never been done on aluminum silicate, but the groundwork has been laid out in numerous papers and well reviewed in Wang’s recent “Solid state reactions: an electrochemical approach in molten salts”.

    I’d propose a hydrofluoric acid free low temperature alternative; first a solid state electro deoxidation of washed aluminum silicates in NaCl/CaCl2 molten salt to, hopefully, extract an aluminum silicon alloy, then a second melt electolysis to separate the aluminum and silicon. This method avoids dangerous hydrofluoric acid, avoids extremely high temperature Hall Heroult process, can be accomplished without a sacrificial anode that releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, and can be done in relatively benign NaCl/CaCl2 salt melts.

  9. Marcin

    Please see additional notes on metal refining from ores, care of John Freudenthal:

  10. ken morton

    Looks like you have some knowledgeable folks advising you on aluminum extraction, and I understand both the enticement of making your own metals and the window of time for appropriating an expired patent. I have not read the scientific papers in detail, but if there are unanswered questions that would make a suitable research project for an undergraduate chemistry student, I might be might be able to find such a student and provide modest supplies/chemicals. However, there are still some big questions remaining for me. 1. Someone once told me that a disproportionate number of fluorine chemists are have some sort of bodily damage (eyes, fingers, etc) from unexpected reactions when working with elemental fluorine. 2. Many years ago I remember seeing part of a concrete bridge over Lake Ponchartrain (near New Orleans) that had simply been dissolved by a damaged tank truck leaking HF. 3. Essentially every chemical process produces waste that must be recycled or properly disposed of. Producing a ton of aluminum from clay WILL produce waste!—and some of it might be toxic.(4) The oft-quoted statement that the the US discards enough aluminum to rebuild its entire airline fleet every 3 months. Given these, I think the most ecological and energy-wise approach for the present is to use the aluminum we have already extracted. I had dinner one evening several years ago with a fellow who works at the headquarters Alcoa plant in Maryville, TN. He said they have one very large warehouse where they accumulate recycled aluminum products until they have enough to run a batch of it through the plant. I was surprised to learn that all the aluminum in the US that is recycled goes through this plant. Wow–that’s a lot of fossil fuel for transportation and it adds a lot of cost to the recycling of aluminum. Without the fossil fuel cost, a higher price could be paid to folks bringing in aluminum–thus encouraging recycling. If there were regional/local centers where aluminum could be remanufactured into useful products, this would be a winner on several accounts: boost local jobs and economy, slash the demand for “virgin” aluminum and its wasteful extraction practices, lower the dollar and energy cost for recycling aluminum, and create a localized waste-to-production cycle that would be a model for a new economics and for other recyclables such as glass, plastics, etc.


  11. Robert O'Brien

    The original goldschmidt process for refining aluminum from alumina ie mixing fe2-o3 (rusty
    iron,steel)and alumina this exothermic reaction would yield aluminum and silicon carbide.A valuable industrial abrasive also used to make kiln shelves

    This highly exothermic reaction

  12. Elliot

    here, here milidon, I agree completely with you on the subject of flourine. There are no closed loops and playing with flourine gets it everywhere, especially if you are playing with it so near to people living and working.

    I would mention that clays that have been leached of 25%-50% of their alumina would be an excellent precursor for geopolymer (bricks and other items). Not if any trace of fluorine exists though. SO3 and to some extent Cl would be better. Source on acid leached clays being good aluminosilicate precursors is “zeolite molecular sieves” by Breck (1973)

    Sulfuric acid leaching to obtain aluminum salts for smelting was begining to gain popularity 100+ years ago before cheaper processes requiring cryolite and (later) bauxite were developed.

    source on that is:

    acid processes for the extraction of alumina
    RALSTON. Bulletin 267 issued by the United States Bureau of Mines (1927)

    I have a digital copy. if you’d like it email me at permafacture on gmail.


  13. Elliot

    Also from Bureau of mines paper, nitric acid (which like sulphuric is composed of non-toxic ions) and hydrochloric processes both seem straight forward. Sulphuric is more complicated. Potassium routes are also well established.