Aluminum is the hidden ingredient in much of today's technology. It’s light, pliable, durable and continuously mined. In 2010, Rio Tinto, mined 3,551,000 metric tons and that product was then manufactured into phones, computers, cars, aircraft and yes, foil. China, the world’s largest manufacturer of electronic parts and products, was also the top purveyor of aluminum in 2017, securing 52.9 percent while the U.S., known for its own electronic prowess, purchased only 11 percent of the world’s output.
But smelting aluminum is also a monumental producer of carbon, largely due to the amount of electricity it requires during production. According to the Australian Aluminum Council, which oversees its own robust aluminum industry, more than 80 percent of greenhouse gasses in smelting are related to the amount of electricity needed in production.
A lot of technology has gone into streamlining how aluminum is made in recent decades, which comes from the metal bauxite and undergoes several steps of production to reach its final product. But aluminum smelting is still costly environmentally. It’s also one of the world’s only light-weight metals that can meet a wide spectrum of technological needs.
So Apple Inc., which uses aluminum in its products, is getting behind a new venture that would be aimed at developing an emissions-free method for smelting aluminum. The project joins the U.S.’ largest aluminum producer, Alcoa, Inc. and the world’s second-largest miner, Rio Tinto, in a bid to revamp the way that aluminum is processed.
The research venture, named Elysis, will be based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and is being funded from a consortium of public and private sources. Apple is contributing CAD $13 million (US $10 m), while the Canadian and Quebec governments are backing a total of CAD $120 m (US $93 m). Alcoa and Rio will be contributing CAD $55m/US $42.7m). The project will initially employ 100 people and is expected to create at least another 1,000 jobs by 2030.
Apple has been on a mission to reduce its environmental footprint, including its dependence on high-emission producing technology. In recent years it has developed ways to recycle aluminum from iPhones and searched for other ways to reduce its dependence on mined materials. So it’s not a surprise that according to Apple, the company played an instrumental part in “facilitating” the venture and stands to benefit from the new technology, which could also boost Alcoa and Rio’s own sustainability ventures.
Alcoa has also been striving in recent years to transform its sustainability record and demonstrate a concerted investment in the areas it does business. It’s a marked turnaround from the 1980s and earlier, when the company suffered from criticisms about its environmental protection processes.
Rio Tinto has also laid out sustainability goals and says it is focused on reducing the impacts of its business investments. But it is still facing criticism for its handling of several mining ventures, the latest being pollution in Bingham Canyon, Utah and Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, where local residents accuse the company of abandoning mining pollution.
The company is also under scrutiny for conflicts over its handling of union grievances and human rights issues.
Perhaps Apple Inc.’s support of the project and the public-private investments put forth will help highlight the fact that corporate sustainability is a well-rounded investment that is balanced by not only better research and technology, but an unrelenting dedication to minimizing its social impacts.
Flickr image: Kārlis Dambrāns
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.