Apple Gets First Commercial-Grade Low-Carbon Aluminum From Elysis

This new process saves energy and emits oxygen, not carbon dioxide.

An image of a woman in a bodysuit in the middle of aluminum production process.
A breakthrough in the production of aluminum, creating oxygen instead of greenhouse gases in the smelting process.


Apple invested in a revolutionary process that eliminated carbon dioxide (CO2) from aluminum smelting. In December 2019, it took delivery of its first load of "greener" aluminum. But while that was made with the new process, it came out of Alcoa's labs in Pittsburgh where the power is not particularly green—53% sourced from coal, as shown by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission's 2016 Electric Power Outlook report. And, as we have also noted, making aluminum takes a lot of electricity.

Now Apple announced it purchased its first batch of commercial purity, low-carbon aluminum, produced by ELYSIS—the joint venture company set up by Apple, Rio Tinto, Alcoa, and the governments of Québec and Canada. This is what we have called dark blue aluminum on our scale of aluminum sustainability.

According to the Apple press release:

"ELYSIS, the company behind the world’s first direct carbon-free aluminum smelting process, announced that it has produced the first commercial-purity primary aluminum at industrial scale for use in Apple products. The breakthrough technology produces oxygen instead of greenhouse gases, and the achievement marks a major milestone in the production of aluminum, one of the world’s most widely used metals. Apple will purchase this first batch of commercial-purity, low-carbon aluminum from ELYSIS for intended use in the iPhone SE. This aluminum was produced by ELYSIS at its Industrial Research and Development Centre in Quebec using hydropower."

Aluminum gets a lot of coverage on Treehugger because it takes a lot of energy to make it—about 13 to 16 kilowatt-hours per kilogram of aluminum. With the standard Hall-Héroult process, it also emitted a lot of CO2, even when powered by hydro.

In each pot where the aluminum is smelted, the electricity is passed through a mix of cryolite and alumina, or aluminum oxide. The aluminum in the alumina is attracted to the cathode; the oxygen is attracted to the carbon anode, which is "consumed" as it combines to make carbon dioxide.

Elysis aluminum ingots
Apple is purchasing low-carbon aluminum from ELYSIS with the intent of using it in the production of the iPhone SE.


The ELYSIS process uses an "inert" anode of some proprietary design that is not consumed. Research on these has been going on for years. The UN Climate Technology Centre and Network describes the problem:

"Most research on anode materials is therefore focused on finding and developing the right alloys and/or composite materials that possess low corrosion characteristics (i.e. low consumption rates), so that anode lifespan is optimised. Examples of anode materials being researched or under development are, ceramic anodes, cermet anodes, metal (alloy) anodes and various coatings. Inert anode should a.o. possess desirable properties such as 1) low solubility in the electrolyte, 2) high resistance towards oxygen produced at the anode, 3) high electric and negligible ionic conductivity, 4) low oxygen overvoltage, 5) resistance towards electrolytic decomposition of the oxide material, 6) adequate mechanical strength, 7) easy electrical connection, 8) non-polluting in manufacture, use and disposal, 8) acceptable contamination of the aluminum produced and 9) economically attractive."

ELYSIS appears to be the first company to have figured out how to make it work. “This is the first time aluminum has been produced at this commercial purity, without any greenhouse gas emission and at industrial scale," said ELYSIS CEO Vincent Christ. "The sale to Apple confirms the market’s interest in aluminum produced using our breakthrough ELYSIS carbon-free smelting technology."

Apple is very picky about the quality of its aluminum and the only recycled aluminum it uses is its own pre-consumer waste. The company can afford to pay more for it, as it goes into such high-value products. It is also trying to reduce its carbon footprint.

“Our investments are advancing the breakthrough technologies needed to reduce the carbon footprint of the materials we use, even as we move to using only recyclable and renewable materials across our products to conserve the earth’s finite resources," said Lisa Jackson, Apple's vice-president of environment, policy, and social initiatives.

An image of the mining bauxite process with a crane
Digging up bauxite, the source of alumina.

Getty Images

This is what is needed because even this ELYSIS aluminum is made from bauxite, a messy and polluting process. That is why there presently really is no such thing as carbon-free aluminum. As Carl Zimring wrote in his book "Aluminum Upcycled": "As designers create attractive goods from aluminum, bauxite mines across the planet intensify their extraction of ore at lasting cost to the people, plants, animals, air, land and water of the local areas."

We still have to use less of the stuff if we are going to stop the environmental destruction and pollution that making virgin aluminum causes. As Jackson notes, Apple will have to figure out how to find enough renewable and recyclable aluminum, and it is not there yet.

View Article Sources
  1. "Inert anode technology for aluminum smelters." UN Climate Technology Centre and Network.