James M. Vann, who manages Alcoa's Northwest operations, grew up in the 1930s in a house that was in sight of the Alcoa plant in North Carolina where his father worked.

The family did the laundry on Sunday, a plant holiday, so it could dry on the line without collecting the grey alumina dust from the smelting operations.

Vann now manages a plant here and one in Wenatchee that turn out 330,000 tons of aluminum a year, but in many ways not much has changed. The big companies use basically the same process for producing aluminum that was invented by Frenchman Paul Heroult and American Charles Hall in the 1880s.

It involves running a powerful electric current through alumina that has been dissolved in a chemical bath at high temperature.

At the Vancouver plant Vann runs, alumina -- lightly processed bauxite -- is brought in by freighter up the Columbia River from Australia. The alumina is converta, or reduced, in a long line of steel vats, which are tapped every few hours to remove the molten aluminum. There is a thick film of alumina dust on the floor of these "potlines," but visitors and stokers don't wear rubber boots just to protect their shoes.

The high voltages pouring through the vats can be hazardous.

The aluminum companies spend millions in research each year to find ways to reduce the amount of power needed in the electrolytic conversions process. But the best that industry has been able to do is about 6 kilowatt hours per pound. Older plants, like the one Vann manages in Vancouver, use 8 kilowatt hours. The two Alcoa plants take 520 megawatts, about 3 percent of total generated in the northwest.

Intalco, using a process invented by Pechiney Ugine Kuhlmann (PUK), is at the lower end of the scale, using only 6 kilowatt hours. Alcoa also reportedly has developed a method that is competitive with the PUK process.