How ‘Green’ Will the Elysis JV’s Aluminum Really Be?

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Alexander Chudaev/Adobe Stock

Full disclosure – I am an owner of an iPhone, iPad and Macbook — and I don’t mind admitting it, a  longtime fan of Apple’s products — but even I cringe when the firm claims to have “worked with other metal companies to develop the proprietary technique, which allows for the generation of ‘green’ aluminium for the first ever time.”

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The claim follows the announcement late last week that at its Pittsburgh research center, Alcoa has developed a replacement for the carbon anodes used in the smelting of alumina to aluminium.

The carbon anode has the important role of delivering a strong electric current through the melt, but in the process carbon is converted to carbon dioxide and considerable levels of greenhouse gas emissions are produced.

But although Apple is said to be investing C$13 million (U.S. $10 million) in the joint venture called Elysis, it is a drop in the ocean compared to the C$120 million of funding from the governments of Canada and Quebec and, further, the C$55 million invested by Alcoa and Rio Tinto in order to achieve commercialization of the technology over the next five years.

Indeed, Alcoa and Rio each have a 48% stake in the JV, with the rest owned by the government of Quebec, so quite how Apple can claim any fame in this venture is hard to see.

OK, Apple’s hubris aside: is this a step forward in lowering aluminum’s carbon footprint?

Aluminum is both loved and hated by the environmental lobby for understandable reasons.

On the one hand, its low density, easy formability and ready availability are major factors in the enthusiastic uptake of the metal among the transport sector, resulting in ever-lower vehicle weights and improved fuel economy.

But it nevertheless remains a hugely energy-intensive product to produce from raw material – scrap is much lower, as it simply requires remelting and refining. The bauxite to alumina to aluminium processes consume vast quantities of electric power, so much so that China has long operated a high-enough export tariff on primary aluminum to essentially ban exports, rightly seeing the trade as exporting power so high is the energy content of a ton of primary aluminum.

Emissions of dust, fluorides, pot linings and “red mud” – the iron rich waste left over from the bauxite refining process — have all been reduced and better managed over the last decade or so but still add to the carbon footprint of the metal.

So, to call this replacement of the carbon anode in the final smelting stage “green aluminium” is a claim too far. However, the reduction in carbon emissions that could result would be welcome and significant for firms looking to reduce the carbon content of their raw-material inputs.

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The greatest contribution will come from carbon taxes, if they are ever properly applied, at which point primary aluminum suppliers will start charging a premium for aluminum made exclusively from renewable energy supplies – that will be green aluminum.

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