Alcoa, Rio Tinto in Apple-backed JV for carbon-free aluminium technology

Frederick Owens
May 11, 2018

Once fully developed, the new technology has the potential to eliminate direct greenhouse gas emissions from the smelting process.

Aluminum has been mass produced the same way since 1886, when it was pioneered by Alcoa's founder, Charles Hall. Large smelters use a carbon material during the process, which burns, producing greenhouse gases.

To help expand this new process, David Tom, Maziar Brumand and Sean Camacho from Apple business development helped bring Rio Tinto to the conversation, and together with Alcoa, both aluminum companies formed a new joint venture called Elysis.

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. Unfortunately conventional methods of producing aluminum results in the emission of greenhouse gases.

Apple is yet to set a date for use of the aluminium in its products, but the company's chief executive Tim Cook claimed it would one day be incorporated.

The Federal government and Quebec are each investing $60 million (CAD) in Elysis, with the latter holding a 3.5 per cent equity stake in the joint venture, with the remaining ownership held between Alcoa and Rio Tinto.

"The financial implication of the federal and Quebec governments demonstrates their commitment to research and development in green technologies and the importance of Canada's world class aluminium industry in the Quebec and Canadian economy".

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The new technology is expected to be ready for licensing to retrofit smelters or build new facilities by 2024. It's released research arguing that the fuel savings - and ensuing reduction in carbon dioxide auto emissions - produced by building cars out of aluminum instead of steel aren't enough to offset what is overall a worse environmental footprint when one takes into account the entire lifespan of the metal in the vehicle.

Alcoa is producing metal at the Alcoa Technical Center near Pittsburgh in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, where the process has been operating since 2009.

Apple said in a release that its involvement with the new process started in 2015, when Apple engineers came across the new technology at Alcoa in Pittsburgh when looking for a cleaner way to mass-produce aluminum.

Alcoa has developed the technology, which is protected by 40 patent families and is ready for scale-up.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement with executives of the three companies on hand. This represents an amount roughly equal to taking almost 1.8 million light-duty vehicles off the road.

Elysis will also have US investments, including funding to support a supply chain for the advanced conductive materials used to smelt the aluminum. It will be based in Montreal, with a research facility in Quebec's Saguenay region.

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