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From “red mud” to Bauxaline

Sylvain Le Berre, Valentin Goujon, Vincent Banos

Bauxite, which is used to manufacture alumina and aluminum, is one of the crucial natural resources of our contemporary industrial societies. However, the processing of bauxite generates residues loaded with heavy metals and radioactive materials: “the red mud”. At Gardanne, after several unsuccessful experiments since the end of the 19th century to requalify and reuse this sludge as a new resource, the waste management regime consisted throughout the 20th century of storage on land and draining at sea. In response to major social protest and to stronger regulatory constraints on environmental preservation and waste management, the industrial operator relaunched experiments in red mud valorization at the turn of the 1990s. This Research & Development approach aimed, firstly, at demonstrating the environmental harmlessness of red mud once it had been requalified and, secondly, at promoting its market redefinition so as to “evacuate” it in the form of a new marketable product: Bauxaline®. But in line with the difficulties faced since the end of the 19th century, each of these experiments failed. These successive failures testify to the inability of industrial engineering to “valorize” these residues but also to master the very materiality of red mud. The analysis of four types of experiments at sea, on the ground and underground, shows how industrial engineering is tested by the fragilities of materiality, which result from the intermingling of mineral and residual agentivity, and technocommercial arrangements.