Alcoa and Rio Tinto develop world’s first carbon-free aluminium smelting process

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Alcoa Corp. and Rio Tinto have announced a revolutionary process to make aluminium that produces oxygen and eliminates all direct GHG emissions from the traditional smelting process.

To advance larger scale development and commercialization of the new process, the two companies are forming Elysis, a joint venture company to further develop the new process with a technology package planned for sale beginning in 2024. The new technology, though details were not released, signals the most significant innovation in the aluminium industry in more than a century.

The joint venture Elysis, headquartered in Montreal with a research facility in Quebec’s Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, will develop and license the technology so it can be used to retrofit existing smelters or build new facilities. When fully developed and implemented, the new process will eliminate direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from primary aluminium smelting and release oxygen instead of carbon dioxide by using an advanced conductive material. The JV company will sell proprietary anode and cathode materials, which will last more than 30 times longer than traditional components, Alcoa and Rio Tinto say.

Canada and Quebec are each investing 60 million Canadian dollars (CAD) in Elysis. The provincial government of Quebec will have a 3.5% equity stake in the joint venture with the remaining ownership split evenly between Alcoa and Rio Tinto.

Support from technology giant Apple

Technology giant Apple is providing an investment of CAD13 million. The company helped facilitate the collaboration between Alcoa and Rio Tinto on the carbon-free smelting process, and Apple has agreed to provide technical support to the JV partners.

Alcoa and Rio Tinto will invest CAD55 million cash over the next three years and contribute specific intellectual property and patents. The patent-protected technology, developed by Alcoa, is currently producing metal at the Alcoa Technical Centre near Pittsburgh in the US, where the process has been operating at different scales since 2009. The JV intends to invest up to CAD40 million in the United States, which would include funding to support the supply chain for the proprietary anode and cathode materials.

Vincent Christ, an experienced leader with more than 30 years’ experience at Rio Tinto Aluminium, has been named CEO of Elysis. Most recently, he has served as head of technology, research and development and automation programmes. He holds an engineering degree in electronics and industrial information technology.

“This discovery has been long sought in the aluminium industry, and this announcement is the culmination of the work from many dedicated Alcoa employees. Today, our history of innovation continues as we take aluminium’s sustainable advantage to a new level with the potential to improve the carbon footprint of a range of products from cars to consumer electronics,” said Alcoa president and chief executive, Roy Harvey.

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

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