The use of electricity in the reduction of metals from their ores is extending so rapidly, and the methods of its generation and application have been so greatly improved within a few years, that the possibility of its becoming the chief agent in the metallurgy of the future may now be admitted, even in cases where the present cost of treatment is too high to be commercially advantageous.
The refining of copper and the separation of copper, gold, and silver by electrolysis have thus far attracted the greatest amount of attention, but a commercial success has also been achieved in the dry reduction by electricity of some of the more valuable metals by the Cowles Electric Smelting and Aluminum Company, of Cleveland, Ohio. Both this method of manufacture and the qualities of the products are so interesting and important that it is with pleasure we call attention to them as steps toward that large and cheap production of aluminum that the abundance of its ores and the importance of its physical properties have for several years made the unattained goal of many skillful metallurgists.
The Messrs. Cowles have succeeded in greatly reducing the market value of aluminum and its alloys, and thereby vastly extending its uses, and they are now by far the largest producers in the world of these important products. As described in their patents, the Cowles process consists essentially in the use for metallurgical purposes of a body of granular material of high resistance or low conductivity interposed within the circuit in such a manner as to form a continuous and unbroken part of the same, which granular body, by reason of its resistance, is made incandescent, and generates all the heat required. The ore or light material to be reduced - as, for example, the hydrated oxide of aluminum, alum, chloride of sodium, oxide of calcium, or sulphate of strontium - is usually mixed with the body of granular resistance material, and is thus brought directly in contact with the heat at the points of generation, at the same time the heat is distributed through the mass of granular material, being generated by the resistance of all the granules, and is not localized at one point or along a single line.
The material best adapted for this purpose is electric light carbon, as it possesses the necessary amount of electrical resistance, and is capable of enduring any known degree of heat when protected from oxygen without disintegrating or fusing; but crystalline silicon or other equivalent of carbon can be employed for the same purpose. This is pulverized or granulated, the degree of granulation depending upon the size of the furnace. Coarse granulated carbon works better than finely pulverized carbon, and gives more even results. The electrical energy is more evenly distributed, and the current can not so readily form a path of highest temperature, and consequently of least resistance through the mass along which the entire current or the bulk of the current can pass. The operation must necessarily be conducted within an air-tight chamber or in a non-oxidizing atmosphere, as otherwise the carbon will be consumed and act as fuel. The carbon acts as a deoxidizing agent for the ore or metalliferous material treated, and to this extent it is consumed, but otherwise than from this cause, it remains unimpaired.
Fig. I. of the accompanying drawings is a vertical longitudinal section through a retort designed for the reduction of zinc ore, according to this process, and Fig. II. is a front elevation of the same. Fig. III. is a perspective view of a furnace adapted to withstand a very high temperature, and Figs. IV. and V. are respectively longitudinal and transverse sections of the same.
This retort consists of a cylinder, A, made of silica or other non-conducting material, suitably embedded in a body, B, of powdered charcoal, mineral wool, or of some other material which is not a good conductor of heat. The rear end of the retort-cylinder is closed by means of a carbon plate, C, which plate forms the positive electrode, and with this plate the positive wire of the electric circuit is connected. The outer end of the retort is closed by means of an inverted graphite crucible, D, to which the negative wire of the electric circuit is attached. The graphite crucible serves as a plug for closing the end of the retort. It also forms a condensing chamber for the zinc fumes, and it also constitutes the negative electrode. The term "electrode" is used in this case as designating the terminals of the circuit proper, or that portion of it which acts simply as an electrical conductor, and not with the intention of indicating the ends of a line between which there is no circuit connection. The circuit between the "electrodes," so called, is continuous, being established by means of and through the body of broken carbon contained in the retort, A. There is no deposit made on either plate of the decomposed constituents of the material reduced.
The mouth of the crucible is closed with a luting of clay, or otherwise, and the opening, d, made in the upper side of the crucible, near its extremity, comes entirely within the retort, and forms a passage for the zinc fumes from the retort chamber into the condensing chamber. The pipe, E, serves as a vent for the condensing chamber. The zinc ore is mixed with pulverized or granular carbon, and the retort charged nearly full through the front end with the mixture, the plug, D, being removed for this purpose.
A small space is left at the top, as shown. After the plug has been inserted and the joint properly luted, the electric circuit is closed and the current allowed to pass through the retort, traversing its entire length through the body of mixed ore and carbon. The carbon constituents of the mass become incandescent, generating a very high degree of heat, and being in direct contact with the ore, the latter is rapidly and effectually reduced and distilled. The heat evolved reduces the ore and distills the zinc, and the zinc fumes are condensed in the condensing chamber, precisely as in the present method of zinc making, with this important exception that, aside from the reaction produced by heating carbon in the presence of zinc oxide, the electric current, in passing through the zinc oxide, has a decomposing and disintegrating action upon it, not unlike the effect produced by an electric current in a solution. This action accelerates the reduction, and promotes economy in the process.
Another form of furnace is illustrated by Fig. III., which is a perspective view of a furnace adapted for the reduction of ores and salts of non-volatile metals and similar chemical compounds. Figs. IV. and V. are longitudinal and transverse sections, respectively, through the same, illustrating the manner of packing and charging the furnace.
The walls and floorsL L', of the furnace are made of fire bricks, and do not necessarily have to be very thick or strong, the heat to which they are subjected not being excessive. The carbon plates are smaller than the cross section of the box, as shown, and the spaces between them and the end walls are packed with fine charcoal.
The furnace is covered with a removable slab of fireclay, N, which is provided with one or more vents, n, for the escaping gases.
The space between the carbon plates constitutes the working part of the furnace. This is lined on the bottom and sides with a packing of fine charcoal, O, or such other material as is both a poor conductor of heat and electricity - as, for example, in some cases, silica or pulverized corundum or well-burned lime - and the charge, P, of ore and broken, granular, or pulverized carbon occupies the center of the box, extending between the carbon plates. A layer of granular charcoal, O', also covers the charge on top. The protection afforded by the charcoal jacket, as regards the heat, is so complete, that with the covering-slab removed, the hand can be held within a few inches of the exposed charcoal jacket; but with the top covering of charcoal also removed and the core exposed, the hand cannot be held within several feet. The charcoal packing behind the carbon plates is required to confine the heat and to protect them from combustion.
With this furnace, aluminum can be reduced directly from its ores; and chemical compounds from corundum, cryolite, clay, etc., and silicon, boron, calcium, manganese, magnesium, and other metals are in like manner obtained from their ores and compounds. The reduction of ores according to this process can be practiced, if circumstances require it, without any built furnace.
At present, the Cowles company is engaged mostly in the producing of aluminum bronze and aluminum silver and silicon bronze. The plant, were it run to its full capacity, is capable of turning out eighty pounds of aluminum bronze, containing 10 per cent. of aluminum daily; or, were it to run upon silicon bronze, could turn out one hundred and twenty pounds of that per day, or, we believe, more aluminum bronze daily than can be produced by all other plants in the world combined. This production, however, is but that of the experimental laboratory, and arrangements are making to turn out a ton of bronze daily, and the works have an ultimate capacity of from eight to ten thousand horse power. The energy consumed by the reduction of the ore is almost entirely electrical, only enough carbon being used to unite with the oxygen of the ore to carry it out of the furnace in the form of the carbon monoxide, the aluminum remaining behind. Consequently, the plant necessary to produce aluminum on a large scale involves a large number of the most powerful dynamos.
These are to be driven by water-power or natural gas and marine engines of great capacity.
The retail price of standard 10 per cent. aluminum bronze is $1 per pound avoirdupois, which means less than $9 per pound for aluminum, the lowest price at which it has ever been sold, yet the Cowles company has laid a proposition before the Government to furnish this same bronze in large quantities at very much lower prices than this. The Hercules alloy, castings of which will stand over 100,000 pounds to the square inch tensile strain, sells at 75 c. a pound, and is also offered the Government or other large consumers at a heavy discount. The alloys are guaranteed to contain exactly what is advertised; they are standardized into 10 per cent., 7.5 per cent., 5 per cent. and 2.5 per cent. aluminum bronze before shipment.
The current available at the Cowles company's works was, until recently, 330 amperes, driven by an electromotive force of 110 volts and supplied by two Edison dynamos; but the company has now added a large Brush machine that has a current of 560 amperes and 52 volts electromotive force. We shall, on another occasion, give some particulars of experiments in the reduction of refractory ores by the process. - Eng. and Mining Jour.