In 1894, the newly formed British Aluminium Company Ltd. bought the exclusive British and Colonial rights for the Héroult process (the electrolytic method of producing aluminium discovered in 1886). The following year the company started work on a hydroelectric power scheme and small aluminium reduction factory at Foyers on the eastern banks of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands.
In its first year of production in 1896, the Foyers reduction works produced 64 tons of the primary metal for the small but growing global market for aluminium. Initially the Foyers works received supplies of some of the raw materials necessary for producing aluminium from their works at Larne in Northern Ireland (aluminium oxide – alumina) and carbon from their Greenock factory.
In 1900 British Aluminium obtained additional water rights in the Highlands from the UK government
The company started work – under the direction of its subsidiary the North British Aluminium Company Ltd. – on an even more ambitious hydro scheme, generating station, factory complex and company settlement at the head of Loch Leven in Northern Argyll-shire in 1904.
This immense scheme took five years to be fully completed with full production being reached in 1909 (small quantities of aluminium were produced at a temporary factory further up the glen from 1907). The scheme also included the immense Blackwater Dam (which remained the largest volume capacity dam in the UK until the 1950s) and a company village of Kinlochleven.
By 1911, one-third of the world output of the primary metal was produced in the west Highlands. This metal was transported by sea and then land to the Company’s semi-fabrication plants in England.
Over the next eight years – with the further expansion of demand for aluminium and intensified competition – the Company expanded its portfolio to include: further hydro-electric generating capacity and aluminium smelters in Norway; interests in bauxite mines in the South of France (which were of a higher grade than the Northern Irish bauxite found at the Company’s mines near Larne); and another rolling mill at Warrington in England. In 1918, the Company started production at a new alumina works in Burntisland in Fife.
After the end of the Second World War, most European aluminium companies turned their attentions towards developing aluminium smelting capacity further afield – to benefit from savings by building large plants close either to the raw materials or water power resources (for cheap electricity production) on which the industry was so dependent.
The expectations of the purported cheap electricity to be reaped from nuclear generation prompted the European aluminium industry from the late 1960s to consider constructing aluminium smelters in Europe (close to their consumer base) once again. Small operations like Foyers were adapted as far as possible. Foyers was converted for super purity production in 1954, and finally closed in 1967. Since 1945, Britain had developed a dependency of North American imports of the primary metal (although it was a dominant force in the semi-fabricated market).
British Aluminium’s Lochaber smelter complex was given its Parliamentary go-ahead in 1921 but construction did not start until 1924. The plant came into operation in 1929 and took about 95% of the 82,000 kW of power generated by the hydro power station. It was further extended between 1938 and 1943. By 1939, the works had expanded the output of BACo’s west Highland works by more than 30,000 tons per annum, accounting alone for over three-quarters of BACo’s total output (including that of its Norwegian works) and around four per cent of international primary aluminium production.
The civil engineering project to establish the works and its power supply required three arduous stages - spanning two decades - and necessitating no less than four discrete pieces of legislation. The first stage involved 2,000 men driving a tunnel through the solid rock of the Ben Nevis range from Loch Treig to Fort William.
When completed this fifteen-mile concrete lined water conduit was over seven times the length of the Tay Bridge, and daily conveyed 860,000,000 gallons of water drawn from a catchment area of 303 square miles. This concentrated natural power was then channelled down two steel pipelines falling nearly 600 feet to the hydro- station, where ten giant generating units produced 10,000 horse-power each to supply the factory.
At the height of the first stage, the project employed some 3,000 navvies and tradesmen on the building of the works, pipelines and hydro-electric station, excavating and lining of the tunnel, and constructing a network of railways running to 21 miles.
The second stage of the scheme, involved building the monumental Loch Laggan Dam, standing 130 feet high and 700 feet long, and a 400 feet dam across Loch Treig with a 2 ¾ miles long tunnel connecting the two, along with augmenting the capacity of the power house and aluminium factory and adding the carbon factory.
The final stage- completed in 1943 by the 1st Tunnelling Company of the Canadian Army- channelled the headwaters of the Spey, via Loch Crunachan and a two-mile man-made tunnel, into Loch Laggan extending the catchment area still further.
By the time the project was completed it had cost the Company over £5 million. However, its success lay not only in its expansion of BACo’s primary aluminium output, but was also deployed as an example by advocates of Highland development and hydro-electric power of the viability and desirability of harnessing natural water resources.
The scheme harnessed the headwaters of the Rivers Treig and Spean and the floodwaters of the River Spey (plus a further eleven burns along the way). The Laggan Dam (213 m long and 55 m high) contained the flow of the Spean in a reservoir (Loch Laggan). A 4 km tunnel then linked this body of water with another reservoir (Loch Treig) contained by the Treig dam. From here, the main tunnel, until 1970 the longest water-carrying tunnel in the world, an enormous 24 km (15 miles) long and 5 m in diameter, was driven around the Ben Nevis massif. From the western mountainside, down five massive steel pipes, the water rushed towards the turbines in the power house at the smelting plant.
The villages of Inverlochy and Kinlochleven were built specifically to provide housing for the workers and their families and Kinlochleven was the first village in Scotland to be provided with electricity as a result of the hydro-generating station.
The North American dependency, and the promise of the potential of nuclear power generation, prompted Harold Wilson’s Labour Government to invite aluminium producers to bid for contracts to construct a new generation of smelters at three locations in Britain. After negotiations, it was agreed that these 100,000 ton smelters be constructed by: the Aluminium Company of Canada Ltd. (Alcan) at Lynemouth in Northumberland, England; BACo at Invergordon in Ross and Cromarty, Scotland; and Kaiser-Rio Tinto at Holyhead in Wales.
Both the Holyhead and Invergordon smelters were to be supplied from electricity from new nuclear power stations at Wylfa B and Hunterston B respectively.
Work started on the Invergordon smelter in 1968, with it entering production in 1971. However delays to construction at Hunterston and spiralling energy costs, led to huge losses at Invergordon. When government financial support to cover the deficit incurred by the electricity boards involved was withdrawn, British Aluminium was forced to announce Invergordon’s closure in 1981.
The modernisation of the Lochaber works, which had started in the late 1970s, was completed around the same time. In 1982, British Aluminium merged with Alcan, and in 1985, the group’s name changed to British Alcan (now part of Alcan – Primary Metals Europe). After the merger, operations at a number of plants (including Falkirk) contracted.
In 1994, British Alcan announced that Kinlochleven would close, and over the next 6 years the Company worked with regional agencies to develop alternative opportunities in the area before the factory closed in 2000. In the first few years of the 21st century, Alcan wound up operations at its Burntisland, Falkirk and Glasgow sites. Yet in 2003, the Alcan’s Lochaber smelter was still producing around 1% of Western Europe’s output of primary aluminium and was judged to be one of the most efficient plants in the industry.
The Acquisition of Alcan by Rio Tinto (‘Rio Tinto Alcan UK’) was carried out in 2008. Lochaber smelter then became part of the world leading mining company whose founding companies were established in 1873. Rio Tinto’s major products include aluminium, copper, diamonds, energy products, gold, industrial minerals (borates, titanium dioxide, salt and talc), and iron ore. It has operations all over the world including Australia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
In 2011 the smelter completed a £45M modernisation of Lochaber power station, from DC generators to AC generators. Lochaber Power Station now houses five 20MVA Generators giving an installed capacity of 100MVA making it one of the biggest continuous Hydro Power Stations in Britain. Each generator rotates at 600 revolutions per minute (RPM) and will annually generate on average 14MW of power at 11,000 Volts.