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Large building and aluminium billets at Hydro Sunndal

Stories by Hydro

The Collaborative Triangle of Aluminium Innovation

In Sunndalsøra, Norway, nestled between a crystal blue fjord and two massive mountain ranges, lies Hydro Sunndal, the largest primary aluminium plant in Europe and one of the most modern. Overabundant water flowing down the mountains and the deep-sea fjord have provided the area with great potential for industry to thrive due to the capacity for hydroelectric power and easy access for cargo ships.

In 1913, construction of the power plant to supply the aluminium smelter began, and in 1954, the smelter began production with a capacity of 40,000 tonnes and 474 employees. The town has evolved alongside the plant. Most of the surrounding industry and all who live there are linked to the Hydro plant in one way or another. In fact, the locality is so integrated with Hydro, that more than 90 percent of all the municipal and a considerable amount of private buildings, swimming pools, and sports facilities in the town are heated through pipes carrying thermal energy produced from the smelting process.

Aerial view of Hydro Sunndal
Aerial view of Hydro Sunndal captured in June 2010. Photo: Harald M. Valderhaug

The Hydro Aluminium AS Research and Development (R&D) center and Hycast AS, the casthouse technology company, are located just adjacent to the Sunndal primary production. These three branches of Hydro work together and form an interdependent feedback loop of aluminium science, innovation and production. ”The cooperation between these companies is the key to innovation and to bringing good equipment or technology to the market,” said Ola Furu, head of Projects and Sales, Hycast. “In what we call a competence triangle, we have been able to do things that really affect the whole of Hydro.”

Hycast uses a full-scale testing casthouse to test their new technology at the R&D center, which is steps away. Once their innovations are ready, they are installed in the Sunndal primary production area, where Hydro operators first pilot the technology in real time before it enters the external market.

Research and Development

The R&D center at Sunndal houses 40 employees, who work with extrusion ingots, foundry alloys, and various other projects that focus on product development and optimizing operations at Hydro casthouses. The R&D center also carries out quality control for Hydro casthouses, such as taking samples of billet to verify a stable process and consistent quality. If there are trends in certain negative directions, the R&D team can suggest actions to be taken by the casthouses.

The R&D center has a well-equipped metallographic and material testing laboratory to also support customers with technical service and troubleshooting. “For example, with the scanning electron microscopes, you can analyze defects of a product in detail,” said Stig Brusethaug, R&D manager at the research center. “Is it an impurity or an inclusion? If it’s an inclusion, you can analyze what kind of elements are in it and where that might come from. Our electron scanning microscopes are key instruments in our technical support work.”

The Hydro Aluminium Research and Development center at Sunndal
The Hydro Aluminium Research and Development center at Sunndal in 2016. Photo: Øyvind Breivik

The role of the R&D center is extremely varied. For the development of new alloys for the market, they often work on different types of projects together with the customers or end users. This can be either small tasks or larger projects over several years aimed at finding solutions and optimizing the use of aluminium in different applications. “As for casthouse technology development, there is a very close cooperation between Hycast and the R&D center, where Hycast utilizes our capabilities to also do development, prototype testing, and evaluation of equipment and its performance,” said Brusethaug. “The dynamics between Hycast and R&D through our facilities form an integrative new way to develop technology.”

Casthouse Technology

Hycast was formed in 1990 as a spinoff from Hydro’s R&D center. The casthouse solution company provides safe, cost-effective, and innovative technologies to improve casthouse processes. Before Hycast was formed, the R&D center would have ideas for products and technologies, but didn’t have the people to take it from the drawing board and transform it into a workable and marketable technology. When Hycast was formed, its main purpose at first was to only supply cutting edge technology to Hydro. While supplying Hydro with melt refining and casting technology is still Hycast’s main goal, now they additionally market to other companies.

Hycast has 60 employees, headed by Ola Ulvund who was raised in the town. “Growing up here in Sunndal in some way you have to relate to aluminium because it’s so important in this local society that working in this industry is extremely natural for me,” Ulvund explained. “Life here has always depended on the fluctuations in the aluminium industry, and in that way we are a global city.”

Together with Hydro Sunndal and the R&D center, Hycast innovates, plans, project manages, installs, and commissions complete DC casting lines. However, for the construction of Hycast’s equipment, the company works with a number of local suppliers that are able to provide steel welding and fabrication services. Since Hycast is nearby, they can drop in at any time to oversee the progress of their equipment as it is being built at the nearby supplier companies.

Complete and Safe

Instead of focusing on only one part of the casting process, Hycast provides turnkey solutions from the exit of the furnace through to the casting machine, so their equipment can integrate seamlessly in the casthouse. The company already has an outstanding safety record, with no recorded fatalities at producers using their equipment since its inception. Fully automating their equipment will bring them closer to the goal of zero injuries accrued. From their headquarters’ close proximity to Hydro, and working closely with the R&D center, Hycast has the tools at their disposal to build complete, safe casting lines using knowledge gained from real time experience. 

“Together with Hydro, we are working very hard to remove all personnel in hazard zones. Getting operators away from all the metal or other dangerous places in the casthouse is key,” said Furu. “For instance, we designed the launder system well, so you don’t need personnel running around paddling the liquid metal at the end of the cast anymore.”

The electrolysis at Hydro Sunndal
The electrolysis at Hydro Sunndal. Photo: Halvor Molland

Environmental Development Agenda

Besides their focus on safety and health, Hydro’s main focus is to take the leading position on sustainability in the aluminium market. The company has the goal of net-zero carbon by 2050 or earlier and 70 percent of Hydro’s primary production is already based on renewable energy. Hydro wholly or partially owns and operates 17 percent of the hydroelectrical power production in Norway, producing electricity for many of its own aluminium plants. Combined, they produce about 9 TW hours of electricity per year. The overall strategy involves investing and growing in other renewable energy systems – not only hydroelectric power, but wind farms, solar power, and hydrogen production. Most recently, Hydro is expanding its global network of recycling plants to help meet its goal of a zero-carbon footprint.

“We have a broad technology development agenda to meet the decarbonization target, including carbon capture, zero-emission primary production (HALZero), advancing post-consumer scrap recycling, etc. A key technology development for recycling is sensor-based scrap sorting, enabling the separation of various alloys,” said Stig Tjøtta, head of technology, Hydro. “Today, we are able to be above 75 percent and we have the ambition towards 100 percent post-consumer scrap recycled content in our aluminium.” 

Electrification of heavy vehicles within its smelter and casthouse is one of the top priorities at Sunndal, which currently has 36 operational vehicles with an annual diesel consumption of 1.3 million liters. The first step of the program includes exchanging eight vehicles, which will result in a reduction in diesel consumption of approximately 200,000 liters annually. This will not only improve the carbon footprint, but will also affect the work environment through reduced noise levels from the vehicles, and less emissions within the buildings. In addition, Hydro has begun using AGVs and digital twin technology, automating many of their operations in the process using digital predictive maintenance.

Melting furnace at Hydro Sunndal
Melting furnace at Hydro Sunndal. Photo: Øyvind Breivik

Part of Hydro’s plan for the future is the collaboration with local high schools and universities, helping students learn about aluminum and learning from the new generation. They partner with leading universities, including the nearby University of Trondheim that has a department exclusively devoted to aluminium. Hydro is happy to have students come experience and learn at the plant, and even have interns during the summer. The local vocational education and training school also is a funnel for students into the company. By keeping the younger generation in the aluminium loop, the industry will be sure to have fresh ideas and minds for years to come.

Feedback Loop 

Several times a year, the top technology experts from Sunndal primary production sit with the researchers from R&D and Hycast at a workshop, where they review the future needs of the plant and what the teams should be focusing on. With discussions back and forth, they take a list of dozens of items and prioritize the most important among them into a shorter list. The companies work together so that the list not only makes sense for Hydro, but also for Hycast.

In this competence triangle, Hydro operators can voice their needs, and Hycast can take it to the drawing board. After the equipment is built, R&D can test it and make suggestions to improve it, and then Hydro can pilot the technologies in a reactive and functional feedback loop. This level of collaboration creates a rare kind of harmonious synergy that keeps aluminium innovation in the forefront at Hydro Sunndal.

This is a modified version of the original article by Rose Eaton that was first published in the February 2023 issue of  Light Metal Age Magazine.


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