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This could be the biggest advance in aluminum production in 130 years

An iPad Pro is displayed during the 2017 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference at the San Jose Convention Center on June 5. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Apple, the largest publicly traded company in the world, joined a major collaboration last week that could change how it gets one of the key components that makes its ubiquitous gadgets look so sleek: aluminum.

And it is looking as though, simply by seeking out a greener component for iPhones and Macs, the tech giant just might push an entire industry in a new direction.

Along with major U.S. aluminum producer Alcoa and multinational mining behemoth Rio Tinto, Apple announced a collaboration in Canada to fund a technology that, the companies say, can remove carbon dioxide emissions from the high-temperature smelting process that goes into making aluminum. Alcoa and Rio Tinto also announced a joint venture named Elysis to scale up and commercialize the technology, in which the government of Canada and Apple will invest.

“Apple is committed to advancing technologies that are good for the planet and help protect it for generations to come,” chief executive Tim Cook 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 aluminum produced without direct greenhouse gas emissions in the manufacturing of our products.”

Heidi Brock, president and chief executive of the Aluminum Association, an industry trade association, said: “The Elysis technology is a potential game-changer for the aluminum industry. 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 tackling global energy challenges.”

Overall, the production of aluminum accounts for about 1 percent of total global emissions of carbon dioxide — making it a surprisingly large player.

Some of those emissions come from the smelting process — in which aluminum oxide is put into an extremely high-temperature mixture of molten salt and then electrified, with a carbon anode also inserted into the mix. The ensuing chemical process, called electrolysis, produces pure aluminum — but also a stream of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, as oxygen atoms pried loose from the aluminum oxide instead join up with the carbon.

The process also uses up a lot of energy because of the heat and electricity required. But it has been done in more or less the same way since 1886, when the Hall-Héroult process of aluminum smelting was invented. It’s that process that gave Alcoa its start as a company — but one that has long had major carbon implications.

“That’s why the classical process is viewed with some disdain by environmentalists, because it takes about half a pound of carbon to make a pound of aluminum, and half a pound of carbon converts to about a pound and a half of carbon dioxide,” explained Donald Sadoway, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has worked on aluminum.

Direct aluminum smelting emissions account for about 17 percent of the overall carbon dioxide total attributable to aluminum making, according to an analysis by Columbia University. Many of the other emissions from producing aluminum come from mining and, most of all, the electricity required to power the smelting process.

But the joint venture between Alcoa and Rio Tinto said their new non-carbon-based smelting process will be commercially available by 2024. The goal is to use a different type of “inert” anode that does not rely on carbon and that, through the smelting process, gives off oxygen, rather than carbon dioxide. At the same time, the new anode would be more energy-efficient and durable, the companies said.

The search for the “inert anode” has been a major scientific quest for a long time, said Sadoway, who has done work on the problem. But it’s only now, he said, that Apple has given a major economic impetus for the struggling U.S. aluminum industry, which has been beset by international competition from China and other manufacturers, to perfect a greener technology.

“Even though Alcoa evidently had this technology for making aluminum without the greenhouse gas emissions, they were in such a situation with respect to profitability that they couldn’t afford to make the transition to the CO2-free process,” Sadoway said. “Because you know, nobody pays a premium for green aluminum.”

Until now, that is.

“Apple swoops down and says, we are prepared to buy aluminum made here in Canada to build our phones and our computers and whatever … if that aluminum is made in a sustainable manner,” he said. “So these two competitors sit down and say, let’s make a deal. It was fantastic.”

Every iPhone 8 contains 11 grams of aluminum, according to Apple, while a 12-inch MacBook contains 353 grams. Apple has long sought to power its operations with renewable energy and lessen the environmental impact of the materials it uses, and the company certainly uses a great deal of aluminum.

So do cars, soda cans and many other extremely common products.

The Canadian government and the government of Quebec are investing in the partnership, and Apple is also contributing funds. If the aluminum is made in Canada, then the electricity involved in the process can be generated through hydropower, knocking out those greenhouse gas emissions as well as the direct emissions from the smelting process.

The new technology exists in a pilot project in Pittsburgh, operated by Alcoa, in which the joint venture will invest more than $40 million with the hope of scaling up, so that the technology can become widespread in industrial aluminum production.

“There’s reason to be hopeful, but until you see it in action, they’ve got to sort of prove it. And then it’s whether you can roll it out,” said Glen Peters, research director of the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo.

Peters and other analysts point out that even with this technology, aluminum manufacturing across much of the world will remain a major carbon emitter unless the electricity that powers the electrolysis process also can become green. In Canada, that often happens because aluminum production is largely powered by hydropower. But worldwide, not as much.

“It sounds like they’ve eliminated the direct emissions in the smelting process, which is significant,” said Greg Keoleian, who directs the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and has studied aluminum production. “But I will say, a majority of the emission are actually related to the electricity, and they haven’t eliminated that. Aluminum is very electricity-intensive.”

Apple calculates that overall, carbon emissions due to aluminum account for 24 percent of its “manufacturing carbon footprint,” and manufacturing is the most environmentally consequential side of its business. The company already tries to procure aluminum produced using hydropower, rather than fossil energy, and to reuse scrap aluminum. And it says it has reduced its emissions by doing so.

So, if this new technology can work at scale, Apple will be able to cut some of the emissions tied to its products, and potentially so will many other companies reliant upon aluminum.

“The significance of this in economic terms is huge, plus there’s the symbolic piece. People look at this and say, ‘Wow, if this is possible, what else is possible?’ ” Sadoway said. “I found the whole thing very uplifting.”