The challenge to change the perception of red mud in order to consider it a potential sustainable resource. In conversation with Kevin Rouff, Paco Boekemann and Guillermo Whittembury
Red mud is an alkaline solid residue produced during the alumina production by the Bayer process from bauxite. Due to its alkalinity, it presents a corrosive nature and poses an environmental issue. Globally there are approximately 150 million tons of red mud and more than 9 million tons of those are generated annually by India alone. The amount of the red mud generated per ton of the alumina processed varies with the type of the bauxite ore used. Due to its nature, red mud poses a challenge for researchers to develop new methods for its application in different fields. Industries and scientists that have worked on valorizing it, haven’t yet taken any major action towards a solution of this matter, including design industries. Design Studio ThusThat took on this responsibility by exploring what could be done. Developers, who before them had been working on the issue, began using red mud to build bricks, which were then used in the construction of houses in Jamaica and India. No other countries accepted the idea of living in houses made up of industrial waste because of legislative barriers and the material’s reputation. To resolve this issue, Studio ThusThat began by taking aerial images of the landfills of industrial waste which added an artistic expression to the matter as they call it ‘strange’.
Within such an anthropocentric aesthetic, they extended the notion of the visuals by designing tableware using red mud, with the intention of addressing the concerns of people who had not widely accepted it yet. Their challenge has been to change the generic perception of red mud in order to consider it not as a liability but a potential sustainable resource. The material proved to be economically and logistically challenging. «The problem with such amounts of mud being shipped to production industries is not yet solved. The solution to this is to have mobile industries that can be set up at the industrial location instead, with the required machinery and tools to begin using the red mud on a productive scale. The tableware set was a design challenge taken as an opposition to the notion of the destructive side of the mining industries, through this we exhibit the idea of the user-friendliness of the material with its presentation on the possibilities of the subject. This project taught us the ceramics craft and the process of design».
Studio ThusThat started in 2019 as an extension of a project from the University of Royal College of Arts and Imperial College, London. The graduation project for the MA programme and MSc in Innovation Design Engineering included both individual and group research. Kevin Rouff who researched on the subject in detail was then joined by Paco Boekemann and Guillermo Whittembury to form the studio. The designs were not made to be sold but to allow the idea to circulate, to create a provocative imagination. Currently, they are working on their new collection of red mud with the fusion of aluminium in a ratio that demonstrates the red mud produced in proportion to the aluminium processed. «We started with some traditional tools and standard safety guidelines that are used for ceramics, although people consider ceramic work easy, it’s not, and with red mud it is a different effort, making the technicalities apart from one another. Coming from a non-design background it was a little tough especially the task of obtaining the right composition of the material to allow the formal designs; it’s definitely scientific although it may seem otherwise. It is not as simple as just adding water to make a mix. It is little of both experimentation and trials. We also used bread making mixture at times to reach the quality we wanted for our mix. When Covid-19 lockdown occurred in March 2020 we spent around two months just making our tests to obtain an accurate mix». The scientific research on the subject was done in collaboration with the Metallo group and under the supervision of PhD Yanis Pontikes, Scientist from KU Leuven, Belgium. ThusThat has exhibited in places and design festivals such as Georgetown University, Dutch Design Week, London Design Festival, Anagra Tokyo, Belgium, Venice Biennale, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Design Museum Gent and Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
«It’s like a mixture of cornstarch with water, a consistency of semi-liquid yet hard at the same time. Scientifically called thixotropic (of fluids and gels) having a viscosity that decreases when a stress is applied. Sometimes it gets frustrating because we work with different kinds of red mud from disparate sites which demand their own treatment, making it complicated to obtain the same results each time. We have at least five to six batches from distinct locations which means all mines produce and process their own kind of aluminium. This is a big challenge. Each time is a new test, a new recipe, new technique and hence a new bi-product. Now we have learned the process enough to understand which changes are required for our trials, but we have done similar kind of production using slip casting, a pottery-making process in which a partially liquefied clay is poured into a plaster mould». The ceramics or bricks require energy for their final usage as refined products. «We don’t use fire drying but air drying so it saves a lot of energy and it’s advantageous but even if someone were to use firing techniques – which breaks down to few basic segments of resources wood, electrical or gas – it still would not be expensive, depending upon from where you source your energy from».
ThusThat’s objective for 2021 is to push red mud further into architectural industries «the prediction is already out on its possible use by cement and tile industries. We are keen and excited to expand further. We have already made tiles with red mud but now we are looking for manufacturers who would be willing to take this adventure of working with red mud so that we can scale it up. We have also tried hand throwing and other traditional techniques but for now, we settled on slip casting because we are not ceramicists. When we start our experimentation, we are in an ocean of parameters where we get variations leading to having a bulk of batches each time. For now, we are working with mining companies from all across Europe majorly France and whenever we look for mining companies to work with, we always refer to India. They recently published an article on 100 percent usages of red mud and they are kind of at the forefront in the re-usage of the material including Jamaica and China, making us think about the possibilities of red mud in the coming future». Their research on red mud led them to copper from geo-polymers that are extracted from the slags produced as leftover impurities by the smelting process. During the pyro metallurgic purification process, slag is extracted and poured out in moulding forms, cooled into a black glassy stone looking like man-made lava. The material is used as fillers for the road. The design collection made of this material includes chairs, tables, stools and various other showpieces. The industries in charge of this material have approved the usage and researchers have revealed the chemical similarities of materials such as cement, red mud and geo-polymers out of the slag: if broken down or reduced to basic elements, they can be converted into similar structure and composition of matter. «The synergy with science has been very important for us and we are looking forward to exploring with various other materials for our innovative designs».
Studio ThusThat is a group of three designers with an interest in materials. Recent graduates of the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, where they completed their joint MA and MSc in Innovation Design Engineering. Their work with overlooked materials involves moving between scientific research, industrial practices, and making. They hope that this approach results in a body of design work that is intellectually engaging, aesthetically rich, and ultimately accessible to wider audiences.