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These designers are using toxic waste to make gorgeous pottery

Students from the Royal College of Art call red mud, a toxic sludge produced by refining aluminum, “a colossal material asset, waiting to be used.”

Aluminum is used in a wide rage of consumer electronics–perhaps even the phone or computer you’re probably reading this on right now. Every year, manufacturers dump 165 million tons of a toxic industrial waste called red mud, a by-product of the early refining process for aluminum, into huge disposal pits full of the sludge.

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After hundreds of tests, a group of students at the Royal College of Art have created a way to transform this toxic mud into beautiful ceramic pottery, proving that it could be used as a replacement material for clay or potentially even concrete. Working with materials scientists at Imperial College London and KU Leuven in Belgium as well as a refinery in France, the students were able to use red mud to create pottery that looks almost like terra-cotta. The series of pots were aesthetically inspired by the material’s industrial beginnings, with shapes that resemble factory smokestacks.

[Photo: courtesy Royal College of Art]

Red mud is the result of the refining process for aluminum oxide or alumina, which is then smelted into aluminum. For every piece of aluminum oxide that’s refined, the process generates more than twice the amount of toxic red mud, which is discarded and stored in giant pits. These pits are so large that they’re visible from space.

The students, Guillermo Whittembury, Joris Olde Rikkert, Kevin Rouff, and Paco Bockelmann, also turned the red mud into blue, red, and black glazes for ceramics. Now they’re in the process of getting these glazes certified as food-safe–a serious concern for a material that’s considered toxic.

[Photo: courtesy Royal College of Art]

The project’s goal is to raise awareness about the environmentally destructive production process of refining common materials like aluminum, while also showing that a material that is currently considered industrial waste could have a productive use.

“We valorize Red Mud by creating high value items, to show that it could be a viable replacement for materials such as clay that are used to make items from bricks to vases,” the students told Fast Company via email. “These materials would otherwise need to be mined. By demonstrating the versatility of red mud, we show that the [164 million tons] produced annually is in reality a colossal material asset, waiting to be used.”

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The students are currently looking into partnerships with ceramics companies to explore production and commercialization.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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