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Apple partners on carbon-free aluminium smelting method

Aluminium giants Alcoa Corporation and Rio Tinto Aluminium have announced a joint venture to commercialise patented technology that eliminates direct greenhouse gas emissions from the traditional smelting process, a key step in aluminium production.

This is a revolutionary advancement in the manufacturing of one of the world’s most widely used metals.

Apple helped accelerate the development of this technology has partnered with both aluminium companies, and the Governments of Canada and Quebec, to collectively invest a combined $144 million to future research and development.

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, said: “We are proud to be part of this ambitious new project, and look forward to one day being able to use aluminium produced without direct greenhouse gas emissions in the manufacturing of our products.”

Apple’s involvement started in 2015, when three of its engineers went in search of a cleaner, better way of mass producing aluminium. After meeting with the biggest aluminium companies, independent labs and startups around the world, Apple found its answer at Alcoa Corporation.

The new aluminium production method releases oxygen, rather than greenhouse gases, during the smelting process.
Aluminium has been mass produced the same way since 1886, when it was pioneered by Alcoa’s founder, Charles Hall.

The process involves applying a strong electrical current to alumina, which removes oxygen. Both Hall’s original experiments and today’s largest smelters use a carbon material that burns during the process, producing greenhouse gases.

Alcoa had designed a completely new process that replaces that carbon with an advanced conductive material, and instead of carbon dioxide, it releases oxygen. The potential environmental impact was huge, and to help realise it quickly, Alcoa needed a partner.

Apple brought Rio Tinto to the table. Rio Tinto had a robust worldwide presence as well as deep experience in smelting technology development and international sales and commercialisation.

Together, the two aluminium companies formed a joint venture called Elysis, which will work to develop this technology further for larger scale production and commercialisation, with a package planned for sale beginning in 2024. Apple will continue to provide technical support as well.

The patent-pending technology is already in use at the Alcoa Technical Centre, outside Pittsburgh, and this project will invest more than $30 million in the United States.

If fully developed and implemented, this new method has the potential to eliminate direct greenhouse gas emissions from the smelting process around the world, strengthening the closely integrated Canada-United States aluminium and manufacturing industries.