Friday, 8 October 2010

Could the Hungarian red mud disaster have been prevented?

Could the appalling environmental disaster in Hungary, where caustic red mud poured from an aluminium factory’s containment pond on Monday, have been prevented?

I have just searched MEI Online and found an interesting news item from September 2002.

Viotec International Ltd announced in 2002 that it had the worldwide marketing and distribution rights to a newly invented process, known as Basecon™ technology, which was registered and patent applied for worldwide, and had been successfully demonstrated at alumina refineries in North American and Europe.

In essence, the report suggests that Basecon™ technology provides the alumina industry with an economic incentive to neutralise bauxite residue (red mud) in such a way that it is no longer caustic, thus eliminating the industry’s long term waste liability. Executive Chairman Brian Sheeran stated, “It is impossible to imagine a world without aluminium, yet the industry faces constant challenges. Basecon™ technology gives the alumina industry a ‘walkaway’ solution to hundreds of millions of tons of caustic bauxite residue currently stored in containment ponds, and tens of millions of tons of caustic bauxite residue produced annually. The Directors believe Basecon™ technology is a significant breakthrough that will benefit the alumina industry throughout the world. When applied to the Bayer process (which is used by the alumina industry worldwide) Basecon™ technology eliminates the need to store a caustic bauxite residue. Furthermore, the Basecon™ technology can be applied to caustic residue that is currently stored in containment ponds, enabling immediate, effective and complete environmental remediation.”

The technology economically converts basicity (mainly sodium hydroxide) and soluble alkalinity (mainly sodium carbonate) into alkalinity that is retained as low solubility hydroxide, carbonate or hydroxycarbonate minerals. After minor additional treatment, the spent neutralising fluid can be safely discharged to the sea or retained in an evaporating basin for salt recovery.

In the report the Directors believed that the implications for the alumina industry are significant. For decades, the alumina industry has been investigating options for treating, disposing, and using bauxite residue, a by-product of the Bayer process, to extract aluminium oxide from bauxite ore. The sheer volumes of residue waste generated, together with the cost of treatment and handling, have been the primary issues affecting its use in beneficial applications. The worldwide alumina industry produces over 70 million dry metric tons of bauxite residue annually.

Does anyone know what happened to this process? I cannot find any follow-up news, and whether it was applied in Europe- if so, why not in Hungary?


  1. This comment received 9th October by email:

    We have been working for ten years with the alumina refinery industry in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia to encourage them to treat and neutralise their red mud, including MAL Hungary in 2004.

    Unfortunately, they have not taken up Basecon Technology in any significant way, but the technology has been proven to work, is cost effective, and is obviously needed, as demonstrated so unfortunately in Hungary this week. A new book on Virotec published in Australia this year, including a significant chapter on red mud and the status of the industry, can be found at the web site.

    On the specific topic of Hungary, we have our team at Virotec Europe working with the Hungarian EPA To find ways to reduce the long-term liability of the discharged red mud as well as to treat the remaining red mud in the dam. Hope this helps.

    Dr Lee Fergusson, Chief Executive Officer, Virotec Global Solutions Pty Ltd, Australia

  2. You cannot prevent a bad weather. On the other hand, you can and you must understand the consequences of a disaster like this and take preventive and protective actions to eliminate or minimize those consequences. This what a Risk Analysis does.
    Posted by William Thorlay, Independent Consultant for the Expansion Project at Novelis do Brasil Ltda.São Paulo Area, Brazil

  3. There are some interesting and revealing images of the disaster at

  4. This is what happens when running for a quick buck!
    But nothing new under the sun: rich people have to get their fortune somehow, and underinvestment and taking risks that will be paid by others was seen before.
    (you may want to read this: )
    I'm not against fortune, I'm against this type of irresponsible behaviour.
    Adrian Iancu, Freelance Consultant, Romania

  5. I don't know of any commercial applications of the BASECON technology but the an update on the status of the process is available at: -
    It is mentioned in a recent article in Environmental Science and Technology
    Of course effective design and management of tailings and residues is important but this problem highlights the need to continue striving to develop beneficial uses of the by-products from mining and metallurgical operations.
    Posted by Tony Hartwell, Oxford, UK

  6. Thank you very much for this very interesting info.

    To Dr Lee Fergusson, CEO, Virotec Global Solutions Pty Ltd, Australia

    I am Assistant Editor at Industrial Minerals magazine in London ( and I would like to get more info on Basecon technology.

    Could you please contact me at to discuss about it?

    Many thanks,

    Alex Feytis

  7. By email:
    Dear Barry,
    I have been informed this morning that your Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke with the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, stating that three UK companies are poised and ready to help with the red mud clean-up and treatment. One of those cited was Virotec Europe. Hope this information helps.
    Dr Lee Fergusson, Chief Executive Officer, Virotec Global Solutions Pty Ltd, 16/10/10

    Thanks Lee. I also hear this morning that the chief executive of the Al plant has been arrested and taken for questioning by the police.
    The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, announced that Zolton Bakonyi has been arrested and the company has been nationalised on a temporary basis while investigations are underway. He has stated that the financial consequences will be borne by those responsible for the disaster.
    Barry (17/10/10)


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