Industrial waste into ceramic tableware

Several designers from London's Royal College of Art have recycled the red mud residue from aluminium production to make a series of terracotta-hued tableware.
5 April, 2019
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The main goal of this design project named "From Wasteland to Living Room" is to find the value in "waste" by recycling the industrial by-product into a sustainable alternative to raw materials. Guillermo Whittembury, Joris Olde-Rikkert, Kevin Rouff and Luis Paco Bockelmann came up with an idea to transform red mud into different functional ceramic tableware pieces.
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Red mud, also known as bauxite tailings, is a by-product of refining bauxite ore into alumina to produce aluminium afterwards. The material mainly consists of iron oxide, which grants it a vibrant, rusty color.

For every ton of alumina produced, the process can leave behind as much as two tones of red mud, which is highly alkaline and hard to neutralize.

"Upwards of 150 million tons of red mud are produced every year, enough to stack in industrial barrels six times to the moon," the designers explained. "Currently, it is left unused in giant pits around the world," they added. "While these make for beautiful satellite images, the environmental costs are a given."

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The group of designers dared to find a valuable use for this by-product, while also making people aware of the impact of materials that are taken for granted, like aluminium.

They chose to turn the red mud into ceramics to highlight the contrast between the two processes. While ceramic production is associated with "warmth, fragility, and finesse", the creation of aluminium is a "brute" and "gargantuan" industrial process.

"Having a cup of tea from industrial waste may seem odd to some," said Olde-Rikkert. "But we need to re-evaluate the stigma around the term 'waste'. We want to bring the material to your hands – to bring it from the backstage of wastelands into your living room"

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To discover the potential of the discarded substance, the team paired up with material experts from Imperial College London and KU Leuven, scored some red mud from one of the oldest alumina production facility on the planet in the South of France, and headed into R&D. Through hundreds of tests and experiments, they discovered a versatile ceramic as well as an alternative concrete.

They used a standardized slip-casting process to form the ceramics, which was made possible by a fine particle size.

Red mud was also used to make the glazes, which produced "surprising" results each time due to the abundance of metal oxides in its composition.

"Most surprising, perhaps, was the variety of body colour by firing temperature, ranging from a soft terracotta red, through to purple, and eventually black," said the designers.

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