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The production of steel, cement and aluminium collectively accounts for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and demand for these industrial materials is on the rise. A handful of pilots are underway to develop zero or nearly-zero carbon versions of these carbon-heavy materials, but the pace of change is hampered by a dearth of investment.

A pilot project in Quebec promises to be part of the aluminium industry’s carbon intensity-reduction solution. In May 2018, Alcoa and Rio Tinto unveiled what they describe as “the world’s first carbon-free aluminium smelting process,” through a partnership called Elysis. The name refers to the electrolysis of alumina, a process at the centre of aluminium smelting.

Apple, which helped to facilitate the collaboration between the two aluminium giants, is also investing in Elysis, based on its own efforts to decarbonize its operations and supply chain. Alcoa, Rio Tinto, Apple and the federal and Quebec provincial governments are providing a combined investment of $188 million.

The partnership “signals the most significant innovation in the aluminium industry in more than a century,” the companies state. This innovation is achieved through an aluminium-making process that produces oxygen and eliminates all direct greenhouse gas emissions from the traditional smelting process.

The technology, which is expected to be commercialized by 2024, could eliminate the equivalent of 6.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions if fully implemented at existing aluminum smelters in Canada. That is roughly equivalent to taking nearly 1.8 million light-duty vehicles off the road, the companies say.

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. The technology promises to increase productivity by creating more aluminium in the same-size smelting cell as the traditional process.

Executives say the technology is expected to also reduce operating costs by about 15%.

“It hits the mark on the environment, it hits the mark on operating costs and on volume and productivity and it will allow us to license technology to either replace existing operations or build new ones,” says Elysis CEO Vincent Christ. Rather than costing more, Christ says the carbon-free method for making aluminium will actually be cheaper. “The work we are doing, out of all of this, is to make this an attractive business case for the aluminium industry.”

Meanwhile, Russian aluminum giant Rusal is targeting 2021 to roll out its own line of carbon-free aluminium, so the race is on.

A longer version of this article, written by Brenda Bouw, first appeared in Corporate Knights Magazine under the title Greening the Concrete Jungle in June 2019.

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