Why Apple is getting cozy with aluminum giants Alcoa and Rio Tinto

Apple says its new method releases oxygen instead of greenhouse gases.
Apple
Apple says the new method releases oxygen instead of greenhouse gases during smelting.

Three years ago, three Apple engineers began hunting for ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the aluminum it used to hold the innards of its products. Along the way, they wound up playing matchmaker to two of the world’s largest aluminum smelters, Alcoa and Rio Tinto.

And both Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Apple CEO Tim Cook showed up for the wedding.

On Thursday, the three companies announced a new joint venture, Elysis, formed to develop and commercialize an aluminum smelting process that produces oxygen instead of carbon and virtually eliminates the greenhouse gas emissions traditionally associated with production. 

The Montreal-based venture, which hopes to begin selling its technology by 2024, is backed by more than $147 million in investment, including $10 million from Apple. The principal backers are Alcoa and Rio Tinto, and the governments of Canada and Quebec. The latter will own a 3.5 percent equity stake in the venture, which will produce equipment can be used to retrofit existing smelters or create entirely new facilities.

“We are proud to be part of this ambitious new project and look forward to one day being able to use aluminum produced without direct greenhouse gas emissions in the manufacturing of our products,” said Cook in the press release about Elysis.

The technology at the heart of Elysis was born at Alcoa’s research and development facility near Pittsburgh — which is fitting, since the company’s founder, Char Hall, is credited with pioneering the smelting process back in 1886. 

Aluminum is created when an electrical current is applied to the chemical compound alumina. The traditional method relies on a carbon material, which is the primary cause of the emissions. The new approach substitutes that component with a conductor that releases oxygen rather than carbon, according to the companies. 

Alcoa’s scientists will refine the patent-pending process. Its collaboration with mining giant Rio Tinto should accelerate commercialization — indeed, one of Rio Tinto’s executives, Vincent Christ, will lead the venture as CEO. Apple will have an ongoing role as a technical adviser.

The companies estimate that the technology could eliminate up to 6.5 million metric tons of GHG emissions in Canada alone, if it were used to retrofit the nation’s existing smelters. For perspective, that’s the same impact as taking 1.8 million cars off the road.

Canada is ranked as the world’s third largest producer of aluminum (after China and Russia), and Prime Minister Trudeau suggested that the new venture could help create thousands of jobs even while harbingering lower emissions. "It is a truly historic day for the aluminum industry — and for all Canadian aluminum workers — who play such as important role in our economy and our country’s future," he said in prepared remarks.

According to Apple’s 2018 environmental progress report, released several weeks ago, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with aluminum manufacturing represent 24 percent of the company’s carbon footprint across its production operations.

Its past approach to reducing that impact has centered on buying aluminum smelted at facilities powered by hydroelectricity and on using more scrap aluminum, one of the many small steps that Apple has been taking toward its long-term goal of using recycled materials for all of its future iPhones, MacBooks and other gadgets. It’s also investing in robots, such as the Daisy technology it introduced around Earth Day, to glean more value out of end-of-life iPhones. 

So far, Apple has managed to shrink the emissions associated with the aluminum using in an iPhone, for example, by 83 percent. The reduction associated with making a 13-inch MacBook Pro computer with Touch Bar compared with previous-generation products is 47 percent, according to the report.