Rio Tinto and Alcoa join forces to scale 'revolutionary' low-carbon aluminium smelting process, with Apple lined up as first customer
Three of the world's most powerful mining, metals, and technology firms have today joined forces to deliver a "revolutionary" new process to smelt aluminium that promises to cut carbon dioxide emissions by millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases every year.
Mining giant Rio Tinto has teamed up with Alcoa, the world's sixth largest producer of aluminium, to launch a new joint venture to scale up the deployment of the new process, which the firms claim replaces all direct greenhouse gas emissions from the traditional smelting process.
Normally, to smelt aluminium - the process of extracting aluminium from its oxide - a large amount of carbon is needed to act as an anode to conduct electricity through the alumina. As it breaks down it releases CO2 and harmful PFC gases, accounting for about 20 per cent of the metal's embodied emissions. A further 55 per cent of aluminium's carbon footprint comes from the electricity needed to power the energy-intensive smelting process.
In total, around one per cent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the aluminium industry.
However, Alcoa claims to have replaced the carbon anodes with a "breakthrough" proprietary material that eliminates direct CO2 emissions from the smelting process and instead produces oxygen. By combining the new process with 100 per cent renewable electricity, carbon-free aluminium could be within reach.
The new technology is the result of decades' of research and is being hailed as the most significant breakthrough in aluminium smelting technology in more than a century. Under the new Canadian joint venture, dubbed Elysis, Rio Tinto and Alcoa now plan to rapidly deploy the technology, which they say could dramatically cut the carbon impact of a huge range of products, from cars to mobile phones.
The move was announced today by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said the technology will create thousands of jobs and significantly reduce Canada's carbon footprint. "It is a truly historic day for the aluminium industry - and for all Canadian aluminium workers - who play such an important role in our economy and our country's future," he said.
Elysis estimates the new process could cut Canada's annual greenhouse gas emissions by 6.5 million tonnes if adopted at smelters across the country - the equivalent of taking 1.8 million passenger vehicles off the road.
"This is a revolutionary smelting process that can deliver a significant reduction in carbon emissions," said Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques. "It builds on the key role aluminium has to play in driving human progress, by making products infinitely recyclable, stronger, lighter and more fuel efficient."
The technology has already attracted a collective investment of CAD$144m, with CAD$60m each from the Canadian government and the government of Quebec, CAD$13m from tech giant Apple, and CAD$55m each from Alcoa and Rio Tinto over the next three years. The province of Quebec will own a 3.5 per cent stake in Elysis, with the remaining equity split between Alcoa and Rio Tinto.
The companies expressed confidence the new technology could prove effective at large scale plants, confirming that a pilot plant in Pittsburgh has been testing the technology at different scales since 2009. Now, from Elysis' headquarters in Montreal, Rio Tinto and Alcoa plan to roll it out across the country and develop a commercial sales package by 2024. Around CAD$40m of investment will also go towards building a supporting supply chain in the US.
Apple said it helped to co-ordinate the Elysis partnership while its researchers were on the hunt for innovations to help reduce the tech giant's carbon footprint, and will provide technical support to Elysis.
Apple CEO Tim Cook added the company is also already lining up as one of the joint venture's first customers.
"Apple is committed to advancing technologies that are good for the planet and help protect it for generations to come," he said in a statement. "We are proud to be part of this ambitious new project, and look forward to one day being able to use aluminium produced without direct greenhouse gas emissions in the manufacturing of our products."
Heavy industries are coming under increasing pressure to cut the carbon impact of their operations, both from big brands eager to drive further emission reductions in their supply chains and from governments battling to meet global climate targets.
But cutting the hefty emissions footprint from industries such as metals smelting seemed a tough challenge without a clear answer. With today's news, which brings together companies at both ends of the global supply chain, the promise of a truly green metal may no longer be a pipe dream.
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