Quebec Embraces ‘Zero-Carbon’ Aluminum While Swedish Firm Powers Steelmaking with Hydrogen
Apple, the Canadian government, and the province of Quebec are backing a Rio Tinto-Alcoa joint venture to bring a “revolutionary”, GHG-free aluminum smelting process to market, just as a new pilot plant in northern Sweden sets out to produce energy-intensive steel through a hydrogen-fueled process that emits water vapour as its only byproduct.
The new joint venture company in Canada, Elysis, will be headquartered in Montreal and pursue research and development at a facility in Quebec’s Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, reports Greentech Media. It’ll be backed by $60 million each from the federal and Quebec governments and US$13 million plus tech support from Apple.
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“This discovery has been long sought in the aluminum industry,” Alcoa President and CEO Roy Harvey said last week. He added that the new technique would “take aluminum’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.’”
That benefit could extend to many clean energy technologies, from energy storage products to solar rooftop racking, Greentech notes. Those products will contain less embedded carbon because, whereas conventional aluminum processing uses CO2-releasing carbon anodes in the electrolytic conversion of alumina to aluminum, the Elysis innovation uses inert anodes that release only oxygen during electrolysis.
“Apple is committed to advancing technologies that are good for the planet and help protect it for generations to come,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook. “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.”
“We are proud of this new partnership with Rio Tinto, Alcoa, Apple, and the province of Quebec,” said Chantal Gagnon, spokesperson for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who attended the Elysis announcement. “This project is the most significant innovation in the aluminum industry in more than a century, and marks a decisive step forward in the fight against climate change.”
The process for producing aluminum accounts for about 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 17% of it from smelting, and has remained largely unchanged since it was introduced in 1886, the Washington Post reports. “The classical process is viewed with some disdain by environmentalists, because it takes about half a pound of carbon to make a pound of aluminum, and half a pound of carbon converts to about a pound and a half of carbon dioxide,” said MIT materials scientist Donald Sadoway.
The “inert anode” at the heart of the new process has been a “major scientific quest” for the industry for some time, the Post says. But it was Apple’s support that finally brought the initial research to its conclusion.
“Even though Alcoa evidently had this technology for making aluminum without the greenhouse gas emissions, they were in such a situation with respect to profitability that they couldn’t afford to make the transition to the CO2-free process,” Sadoway said. “Because, you know, nobody pays a premium for green aluminum.”
But then, “Apple swoops down and says, we are prepared to buy aluminum made here in Canada to build our phones and our computers and whatever,” as long as the aluminum was produced sustainably. “So these two competitors sit down and say, let’s make a deal. It was fantastic.”
If Canadian smelters adopted the technology, writes GTM, “its carbon benefits would equate to taking 1.8 million cars off the road.”
Analysts contacted by the Post noted that the wider aluminum supply chain will still be a major carbon emitter until the electricity that powers it is decarbonized. “In Canada, that often happens because aluminum production is largely powered by hydropower. But worldwide, not as much.”
But renewable electricity production is an essential part of the picture in Sweden, where Hybrit, a joint venture of steelmaker SSAB, power utility Vattenfall, and iron ore producer LKAB “has developed a completely fossil-free value chain for steel production based on hydrogen produced from renewable electricity,” Euractiv reports.
The process “will only emit water vapour instead of carbon dioxide,” the publication states, and the consortium “aims to eventually ‘totally replace’ Sweden’s iron production, cutting the country’s CO2 emissions by 10%.” Production costs are currently 20 to 30% above a regular steel manufacturing facility, but Hybrit says that difference will diminish as carbon prices increase and renewable electricity costs continue to fall.
In an interview with Euractiv, Hybrit CEO Mårten Görnerup said the company hopes to open the pilot plant by 2020, with limited capacity of just one to two tonnes per hour of direct-reduced iron. The facility will need about 15 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity per year, but will take advantage of a surplus that is already available in the northern part of the country.
“We hope that by 2024, we’ll have a pretty good grip on how this process should take place and start to plan for the next step, which is a demonstration plant,” he explained. “The main difference is that the demonstration plant will run as an industrial facility operating 24/7 for months.”
In Quebec, meanwhile, Elysis says its new process can cut operating costs by 15% and boost production by the same margin, Greentech states.
“After scaling the technology for industrial use, Elysis expects it to hit the commercial market by 2024,” with “plans to licence the technology so it can be applied to new builds or used to retrofit active smelters.” The company will also market its proprietary anode and cathode materials.
“Commercial partners who will use the aluminum have yet to be pinned down,” Greentech adds, but “Apple’s collaboration suggests the electronics company will be among the first in line for metal produced with the new technology.”
The Washington Post says Apple uses 11 grams of aluminum for every iPhone 8 it manufactures, 353 grams for every 12-inch MacBook.
While some media reports on the Elysis deal focused on the potentially transformative impact of the new technology, others picked up on the timing of Trudeau’s funding announcement, just days before he called a byelection in the federal riding of Chicoutimi-Le Fjord. The seat has been hotly contested, with the Liberal challenger beating out the NDP incumbent by only 600 votes in 2015.
“It’s not a coincidence that suddenly the prime minister and the Liberal government are paying a lot of attention to this riding when he did absolutely nothing in the last 2½ years,” said Conservative MP Gerard Deltell.