There Is No Such Thing as 'Carbon-Free Aluminum'

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Promo image. Elysis Aluminum ingots

Apple just bought its first load of greener aluminum. But you cannot call it carbon-free.

Reuters headlines their story, "Apple buys first-ever carbon-free aluminum from Alcoa-Rio Tinto venture," and everyone picks it up, invariably with "carbon-free aluminum" in their headlines.

It's the first batch of aluminum made by Elysis, a joint venture of Alcoa and Rio Tinto with significant funding from the Canadian government and an investment from Apple.

"For more than 130 years, aluminum - a material common to so many products consumers use daily - has been produced the same way. That's about to change," Lisa Jackson, Apple's vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, said in a statement.

The Elysis process is indeed revolutionary; as we noted earlier, it replaces the Hall-Héroult process for separating the aluminum from the oxygen in aluminum oxide by running lots of electricity through it with carbon anodes, which are consumed when the carbon reacts with the oxygen in the alumina, producing carbon dioxide. Somehow (I can't find the patent or any detailed information) they have replaced the carbon anode with a proprietary material that separates the oxygen from the aluminum without making CO2. It just releases oxygen.

This is a huge advance. When Elysis starts making aluminum with hydropower in Quebec in quantity by 2024, "it has the potential to reduce annual GHG emissions by 7 million tons, equivalent to removing 1.8 million cars from the roads."

But it is not carbon-free aluminum.

energy production in Pennsylvania

Energy production in Pennsylvania/Public Domain

First of all, the batch that Apple just bought is made in Pittsburgh, not Quebec, so its electricity source is pretty dirty, 53 percent from coal. So Apple bought the first batch made in the Elysis process, but it is coal and gas fired.

But we are just at the prototype stage, so when it is made with hydropower in Quebec, it will be carbon-free, right?

mining bauxite

© Getty Images/ mining bauxite, the source of Alumina

Well, no, because aluminum oxide, or alumina, is made from bauxite. As noted in an earlier post, it's "mined in giant open pit mines in Jamaica, Russia and Malaysia. The mining alone is hugely destructive, destroying agricultural lands and forests." I described the process of then cooking out the alumina:

In big industrial operations close to the source, the bauxite is crushed and cooked in caustic soda, and alumina hydrate is precipitated out. What's left is "red mud", a toxic mix of water and chemicals that is often held in ponds, that have leaked with disastrous results. The separated alumina hydrate is then cooked at 2,000°F to drive off the water, leaving anhydrous alumina crystals, the stuff that aluminum is made from.

That process takes a lot of energy and produces a lot of CO2; according to Matthew Stevens in the Financial Review,

It takes about 2.5 megawatt-hours of electricity to make one tonne of alumina and a lot of the world’s best refineries draw that power from gas generators. The Australian example offers a fair guide to the greenhouse footprint of the industry globally. The AAC numbers show that in 2018 our alumina refineries released 13.7 million tonnes of direct carbon dioxide emissions and 14.5 million tonnes overall in producing 20 million tonnes of aluminium’s raw material.

Stevens comes to the same conclusion that I have been stressing: "Until alumina arrives emissions-free, no one can claim to be selling greenhouse emissions-free aluminium."

To reiterate, there is no such thing as "carbon-free aluminum." That's why I keep saying we have to try and reduce demand. That's why I keep quoting Carl Zimrig on why recycling or Upcycling or Elysis are not enough:

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. Upcycling, absent a cap on primary material extraction, does not close industrial loops so much as it fuels environmental exploitation.

We have to leave the bauxite in the ground and close the loop with recycled aluminum. We have to use less of the stuff, and stop greenwashing it.