Rio Tinto, Alcoa announce world’s first carbon-free aluminum smelting process

Rio Tinto and Alcoa Corp. have announced a process to make aluminum that produces oxygen and eliminates all direct greenhouse gas emissions from the traditional smelting process.

It is claimed to be “the most significant innovation in the aluminum industry in more than a century.”

To advance larger scale development and commercialization, the companies have formed Elysis, a joint venture company to further develop the process with a technology package planned for sale beginning in 2024.

Elysis will be headquartered in Montreal, QC, with a research facility in Quebec’s Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, and will develop and license the technology so it can be used to retrofit existing smelters or build new facilities.

When fully developed and implemented, it will eliminate direct greenhouse gas emissions from the smelting process and strengthen the closely integrated Canada-United States aluminum and manufacturing industry. The new JV will also sell proprietary anode and cathode materials, said to last over 30 times longer than traditional components.

Canada and Quebec are each investing $C60 million in Elysis. The provincial government of Quebec will have a 3.5% equity stake in the JV with the remaining ownership split evenly between Alcoa and Rio Tinto.

Apple is investing $C13 million. The company helped to facilitate the collaboration between Alcoa and Rio Tinto on the carbon-free smelting process and has agreed to provide technical support to them.

Rio Tinto and Alcoa will invest $C55 million cash over the next three years and contribute specific intellectual property and patents.

The patented technology, developed by Alcoa, is currently producing metal at the Alcoa Technical Center, near Pittsburgh, PA, where the process has been operating at different scales since 2009. The process uses an “advanced conductive material” instead of the carbon material that’s usually used to remove oxygen from aluminum oxide during smelting. While carbon-based smelting releases carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas—the new process releases oxygen.

Elysis, the company name, refers to the process at the center of aluminum smelting, the electrolysis of alumina. In Canada, the technology could eliminate the equivalent of 6.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, if fully implemented at existing smelters in the country. That is roughly equal to taking nearly 1.8 million light-duty vehicles off the road.

The JV intends to invest up to $C40 million in the US, which would include funding to support the supply chain for the proprietary anode and cathode materials.

Vincent Christ has been named CEO of Elysis. With more than 30 years’ experience at Rio Tinto Aluminium, he was most recently head of technology, research and development and automation programmes.

Rio Tinto, www.riotinto.com

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