A new joint venture in Canada plans to use a “revolutionary” process to make aluminum, which will produce oxygen and replace all direct greenhouse gas emissions from the traditional aluminum smelting process. Some observers say this could turn out to be the most significant innovation in the aluminum industry in more than a century.

 

Executives of U.S. aluminum producer Alcoa Corporation, the world’s second largest mining corporation Rio Tinto and Apple were on hand for the recent announcement of the joint venture, along with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier of Québec Philippe Couillard. Alcoa and Rio Tinto are forming Elysis, a joint venture company, to further develop the new process with a technology package planned for sale beginning in 2024. Apple “helped facilitate” the collaboration between Alcoa and Rio Tinto on the carbon-free smelting process, and Apple has agreed to provide technical support to the JV partners. Canada and Quebec are each investing $60 million (CAD) in Elysis. Alcoa and Rio Tinto will invest $55 million (CAD) over the next three years and contribute specific intellectual property and patents. Apple is providing an investment of $13 million (CAD).

 

Elysis, which will be headquartered in Montreal with a research facility in Quebec’s Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, will develop and license the technology so it can be used to retrofit existing smelters or build new facilities. Vincent ******, an experienced leader with more than 30 years’ experience at Rio Tinto, has been named Chief Executive Officer of Elysis.

 

“The Elysis technology is a potential game-changer for the aluminum industry,” Heidi Brock, president and chief executive of the Aluminum Association, an industry trade association, says in a Washington Post article. “Aluminum is already a sustainable material, thanks to its recycling profile and use-phase benefits, but by removing much of the carbon impact on the front end of production, it can play an even greater role in helping to tackle global energy challenges.”

 

The patent-protected technology, developed by Alcoa, is already producing aluminum at the Alcoa Technical Center, near Pittsburgh, where the process has been operating at different scales since 2009. The joint venture intends to invest up to $40 million (CAD) in the U.S., which would include funding to support the supply chain for the proprietary anode and cathode materials.

 

For Apple, the public investment is a rare move. Although Apple typically invests millions of dollars in the development of new manufacturing processes and key technologies, it often doesn’t discuss them publicly. Recently, however, the company started a $5 billion fund in the U.S., resulting in investments in companies such as Corning, Inc. and Finisar Corp., which make glass for iPhone screens and Face ID sensors, respectively, a Bloomberg article notes. Aluminum is a key component in many of Apple’s most popular products, so the company’s role in, and backing of, Elysis makes sense and isn’t surprising.

 

Then again, what is perhaps most interesting is that this venture is the latest in a broad set of actions Apple has taken to become more environmentally friendly. In the past, the company faced criticism for the way some of its devices were manufactured and recycled—and sometimes for perceptions of manufacturing and recycling. The new approach includes both the sourcing of its materials and the treatment of its labor force, as well as switching all of its operations to run entirely on renewable energy. Furthermore, Apple has said it eventually hopes to make its products entirely from recycled materials. So, while the investment in Elysis and its new aluminum process in particular is comparatively small monetarily, it certainly appears as if the backing could eventually have a significant impact on Apple’s future environmental efforts as well as public perceptions of its environmental approach.

 

What are your thoughts on aluminum production that does not create greenhouse gas emissions? What about your thoughts on Apple's environmental efforts?