Rio Tinto’s ‘green’ aluminium on track for 2024 after sale to Apple

Australian mining giant Rio Tinto and its joint venture partner Alcoa are quietly confident a new carbon-free aluminium product made using “breakthrough” technology is on track to be commercially available by 2024.

The two companies’ Montreal-based joint venture, Elysis, sold the world’s first batch of the carbon-free aluminium to global tech giant Apple last week for use in its products, which could include iPhones and Mac computers.

Apple has bought the world's first commercial batch of carbon-free aluminium from a joint venture between Rio Tinto and Alcoa.
Apple has bought the world’s first commercial batch of carbon-free aluminium from a joint venture between Rio Tinto and Alcoa.Credit:James Alcock

The product sold to Apple was made through a process that emits only oxygen and removes carbon dioxide from the usually highly emissions-intensive process of smelting aluminium.

It comes as mining companies including Rio Tinto and BHP face growing pressure from investors and customers including tech companies and automakers over their carbon emissions.


“They are getting it from both sides – from investors pushing at AGMs for public statements and emissions-reduction targets, and from customers saying we want this stuff,” John O’Brien, Deloitte partner of energy transition, said.

“There’s a reason why BHP, Rio and others are going on this route.”

The aluminium batch was made at Alcoa’s Pittsburgh technology centre, which is not powered by renewable energy. But Elysis will shift the production to a $US50 million research and development centre in Saguenay, Quebec, which will be completed next year and will have access to a renewable power supply.

Sources close to the joint venture have privately expressed confidence that the greener aluminium will be ready for more widespread sale in commercial quantities by 2024.

Formed in 2018, the Rio Tinto-Alcoa joint venture received $US144 million in funding from the two companies, Apple and the governments of Canada and Quebec.

“This is another important step towards zero-carbon aluminium and a more sustainable future,” Rio Tinto aluminium chief Alf Barrios said.

Aluminium is commonly used to manufacture construction materials, drink cans, foil packaging and electrical products. Processing alumina into aluminium is highly energy-intensive and can be carbon emissions-intensive, particularly at smelters that source their energy from coal, such as Alcoa’s Portland aluminium smelter in Victoria’s south-west.

The aluminium industry accounts for as much as 1 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Companies such as Apple have positioned themselves as leaders in sustainability and decarbonisation as part of their brands, Mr O’Brien said. “So supply chains will have to do even more to decarbonise over the next 10-15 years or go out of business,” he said

Apple uses aluminum in many of its electronic products, including iPhones, Apple Watches and Mac computers.

“For more than 130 years, aluminium – a material common to so many products consumers use daily – has been produced the same way,” said Apple vice-president of environmental initiatives Lisa Jackson. “That’s about to change.”

Apple did not specify which of its products would use the carbon-free aluminium.

Rio Tinto’s three aluminium smelters in Australia are facing pressure from the high price of energy, which accounts for about a third of their costs. Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques said in August its aluminium smelters were on “thin ice”.

The company said Australia’s high power prices were undermining the value of the assets, and confirmed it was in discussions with federal and state governments to find a solution.

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