Apple tries to reduce emissions from making iPhones with green aluminum venture

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SAN FRANCISCO – Apple is investing $10 million in a venture designed to eliminate direct emissions from making the aluminum that goes into iPhones and iPads, a new process that could curb greenhouse gases from metal manufacturing worldwide.

The two-year effort culminated Thursday in the announcement of a joint venture between aluminum producer Alcoa and mining and smelting company Rio Tinto.

To be named Elysis, it will be based in Canada’s Quebec province and will work to develop the new technology further. The goal is eventual large-scale production and commercialization of the process so the lightweight metal, which is used as an alloy in the cases that enclose many Apple devices, can be made without releasing any direct greenhouse gases. 

“Apple is committed to advancing technologies that are good for the planet and help protect it for generations to come,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a statement. 

The investment is part of Apple’s ongoing effort to make not just itself, but its entire supply chain, green. Last month, for example, it announced 100% of its electricity was coming from renewable sources and that 23 of its suppliers had also committed to becoming 100% renewable.

The joint venture hopes to have a technology package ready for sale to aluminum producers beginning in 2024. Apple hopes to begin using some of that aluminum sometime after that. 

A quest for green aluminum

The joint venture had its start in 2015 when Apple set three of its engineers to the task of finding a cleaner way to produce aluminum, a key material in many Apple products. Emissions associated with aluminum manufacturing across all Apple products represent 24% of its manufacturing carbon footprint, the company said. 

They found what they were looking for at Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Alcoa, the world’s sixth-largest aluminum producer. The company had been working on a breakthrough aluminum production technology called inert anode smelting since 2009.

It was a major advance in the smelting of aluminum, which since 1886 has basically been produced the same way using a process pioneered by Alcoa’s founder. It involves applying strong electrical current to alumina produced from bauxite ore, using a carbon material that burns during the process. That burning produces greenhouse gases.

The new Alcoa process replaces the carbon with an advanced conductive material. Instead of producing carbon dioxide, the new process produced only pure oxygen.

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With Apple acting as a catalyst, Alcoa and Rio Tinto agreed to form a joint venture, Elysis, to bring the new technology to large scale production and commercialization. Apple will also continue to provide technical support.

The three companies made their announcement Thursday in Saguenay, Quebec. Elysis will be headquartered in Montreal, with a research facility in Saguenay. Canada is the world’s third-largest producer of aluminum, after China and Russia.

Elysis will develop and license the technology so it can be used to retrofit existing smelters or build new facilities, the companies said.

Canada and Quebec are each investing $47 million in Elysis. Quebec will have a 3.5% equity stake with the rest split evenly between Alcoa and Rio Tinto.

Elysis will also have U.S. investments, including funding to support a supply chain for the advanced conductive materials used to smelt the aluminum. 

If the new process works at scale, it could be significant in the race to lower the production of greenhouses gases that cause climate change. Globally, aluminum production is responsible for about 1% of all greenhouse gases, according to the Columbia University Climate Center.

In a call Wednesday, Alcoa’s Jim Beck called the new process the most significant innovation in the production of aluminum in over 100 years.

If new technology were implemented at existing aluminum smelters in Canada alone, it would result in the equivalent of 6.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions being eliminated.

“That’s the same as taking 1.8 million light duty vehicles off the road,” Beck said.

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