Apple uses a lot of aluminum across its product line — it’s part of the company’s design ethos. But it also represents almost a quarter of Apple’s manufacturing emissions. So the tech giant started working with industrial firms Rio Tinto Aluminum and Alcoa Corporation on a new joint venture called Elysis, and has helped create a $144 million investment pool alongside the Governments of Canada and Québec to commercialize a zero-carbon smelting process.
Alcoa has been working on the new process since 2009. While carbon-based smelting releases carbon dioxide, Alcoa’s new process releases oxygen. The traditional aluminum smelting process that’s been used since 1886 involves burning carbon material and applying a strong electrical current to remove oxygen from aluminum oxide. The new process replaces that carbon material with an “advanced conductive material,” thus avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.
Apple’s involvement started in 2015, when three of its engineers went in search of a cleaner, better way of mass producing aluminum. After meeting with the biggest aluminum companies, independent labs and startups around the world, Apple engineers Brian Lynch, Jim Yurko and Katie Sassaman found their answer at Alcoa. Realizing the potential environmental benefits of Alcoa’s process, Apple brought Rio Tinto to the table to help further develop the technology, scale up production and commercialize it.
The two aluminum companies formed Elysis, with a plan to sell the technology needed to retrofit existing smelters by 2024. Elysis will also be the name of the company’s patent-pending technology, which is already in use at the Alcoa Technical Center outside Pittsburgh. The joint venture will also sell proprietary anode and cathode materials, which will last more than 30 times longer than traditional components.
“This discovery has been long sought in the aluminum industry, and this announcement is the culmination of the work from many dedicated Alcoa employees,” said Alcoa CEO Roy Harvey. Of the venture’s announcement, he added, “Today, our history of innovation continues as we 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.”
While Apple isn’t taking a stake in Elysis, it is putting in $10 million and will continue to offer technical support. The Canadian and Quebec governments are each investing $47 million, and Alcoa and Rio Tinto are together putting in $43 million, together with intellectual property. Quebec will get a 3.5 percent equity stake, and Alcoa and Rio Tinto will evenly split the rest.
“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.”
The project is expected to strengthen the closely integrated Canada-United States aluminum and manufacturing industries. Elysis will be headquartered in Montreal with a research facility in Québec’s Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, where employees will develop and license the technology so it can be used to retrofit existing smelters or build new facilities. In total, the company will directly employ about 100 people, including research and development, management and sales. It is further expected to invest more than $30 million in the United States.