Source: Courtesy ELYSIS

Alcoa, Rio Tinto and Apple work with Canada to erase aluminum smelting emissions

From cans, to cars and computers, aluminum usage is expected to grow. Lightweight, strong and infinitely recyclable, aluminum has become a mainstay of modern society.

Despite its many advantages, the process to make aluminum is largely unchanged since its development in 1886. Carbon anodes are needed in the electrolytic process, which creates carbon dioxide emissions. Now, however, a new company, ELYSIS, is working to scale up technology that eliminates all direct greenhouse gas emissions in the smelting process.

ELYSIS aims to market this technology, beginning in 2024, for either retrofits or the construction of new smelters. The company, launched in May 2018 and headquartered in Montreal, is a partnership between Rio Tinto, Alcoa, and the Canadian province of Quebec. With support from the Canadian federal government and Apple, ELYSIS is scaling up this breakthrough process to benefit the global aluminum industry.

Worldwide aluminum production continues to increase, according to the International Energy Agency, with heaviest demand from the transportation and construction sectors. Aluminum production involves three main processes: mining, ore processing, and smelting to obtain pure aluminum. The smelting process accounts for about 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the aluminum industry and 1 percent of total global CO2 emissions.

Historically, the smelting process removes oxygen from aluminum oxide, also known as alumina, by mixing the raw material with cryolite, which includes molten salts, and applying a strong electrical current through a carbon anode. The energy-intensive process produces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. However, the new process replaces the carbon anodes with an advanced conductive mixture of inert material, releasing only the oxygen.

Alcoa developed the patented process that is now known by the same name as the joint venture created with Rio Tinto. The ELYSIS name reflects the process used to make the metal – the electrolysis of alumina. The technology has already been demonstrated on a research and development scale at the Alcoa Technical Center outside of Pittsburgh.

Not only does this new process reduce emissions, but ELYSIS says the technology is expected to reduce operational costs by more than 15 percent.

“By working together, the parties can bring this groundbreaking technology to market sooner rather than if they continued to work alone… each partner brings different things to the table,” said Vincent Christ, ELYSIS CEO. “The governments of Canada and Quebec have made it a priority to invest in innovative new technology that will provide jobs, economic growth, and reduce its overall carbon footprint.”

The joint venture will also sell the new aluminum smelting method’s proprietary anode and cathode materials, which are projected to last up to 30 times longer than traditional components.

At the launch of ELYSIS, Rio Tinto and Alcoa said the technology could eliminate the equivalent of 6.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually in Canada—the same impact as removing 1.8 million cars from the road.

In addition to environmental and financial benefits for the companies, the ELYSIS project is expected to directly employ 100 people, with the potential to create more than 1,000 jobs by 2030 and to secure more than 10,500 existing aluminum jobs in Canada, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Office.

The project will also invest more than CA$40 million in the U.S. economy, including supply chain support for the proprietary anode and cathode materials.

The next time you grab your iPhone or a soda can, remember how cooperative problem-solving can lead to responsible business practices and economic growth that go hand in hand.