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Saguenay River: Aluminum Toil

The river and its people make the modern metal

More on the Saguenay River:
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Aluminum Toil:
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Left Behind:
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Rumours of More:
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Tide of Destruction:
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Quebec's vitally-important aluminum industry owes its existence to the power and depth of the Saguenay River system.

The river's deep channel allows seagoing ships to bring bauxite ore from South America, Africa, and Australia 100 kilometres upstream to an inland port at Port Alfred. Ships also use the river to carry the finished ingots to markets around the world.

Most of all, the force of the Saguenay and its tributaries generates the enormous amounts of electricity required to separate the aluminum from its ore.

If the company had to pay normal rates for the power, it could not function. Instead, the company itself owns and operates six power stations on the Saguenay and Peribonca rivers. The power they produce would be enough for one million homes.

Agriculture and paper making were the mainstays of the regional economy before 1925. It was then that the Aluminum Company of America started building a dam and smelter. To house its workforce, the company even built its own town, today, Jonquière, which was originally named Arvida to honour the company's founder, Arthur Vining Davis.

Just three years later, the United States government ordered the company to break up its monopolistic control of the aluminum market. All of the company's operations outside of the United States were organized into a separate, competing company based in Montreal.

Today, Alcan Aluminium Ltd., has more than 34,000 employees in about 30 countries. It is still based in Montreal and has thousands of owners who buy and sell shares through the stock markets.

For decades, the local workforce was French-speaking and the managers, who lived on la rue des bosses, were English-speaking. This changed as more French-speaking engineers and managers emerged from Quebec universities, and the provincial government demanded that French become the principal language of work in the province.

Until the 1980s, the Chicoutimi-Jonquière region was prosperous because of the high-paying jobs in the aluminum and paper industries. But the region was too dependent upon those two industries. When modernization reduced the number of workers needed to run the plants, the region suddenly suffered high unemployment.

Alcan reduced its workforce by 2,400 when it modernized its smelters in response to rising international competition and sinking aluminum prices.

In the Saguenay region today, Alcan still employs more than 6,000 people in well-paid work. Most employees are involved in the refining of ore and the smelting of aluminum. Some conduct advanced scientific research while others run the company's Roberval and Saguenay Railway that ferries ore and finished aluminum between the port and the plants. About 700 people maintain the company's dams and power stations that generate electricity for its regional plants.

Aluminum is the most abundant element in the earth's crust. But it is one of the most difficult to separate from the soil and turn into useful material. The process requires vast amounts of electricity.

First, the ore, called bauxite, is dissolved under heat and pressure in tanks of caustic soda. A compound of aluminum and oxygen called alumina is extracted by the process.

The alumina is dissolved in pots of liquid salt and subjected to an intense electrical current that separates the molecules into the basic elements, aluminum and oxygen. Molten aluminum is siphoned from the bottom of the containers and mixed with other materials to create mixtures, called alloys.

Pure aluminum is three times lighter than steel, but not nearly as strong. Alloys containing just 10 percent of other materials approach the strength of steel with very little gain in weight. Aircraft, for example, are made of an alloy of aluminum, copper, magnesium, silicon, and zinc. Spacecraft use a lighter and more expensive alloy of aluminum and lithium.

The aluminum alloys are cast into ingots or flattened into rolled sheets for transportation to factories that make aircraft, railcars, mountain bikes, pie plates, drink cans, and toothpaste tubes.

To create new markets for aluminum, the company invests in the development of new uses for the metal, particularly in the building of cars. Aluminum cars are more expensive to build, but burn less fuel and last longer than those made of steel.

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