Aluminum is abundant in more things than just soda cans; the metal is used in everything from transportation to power lines. It’s also a component of things like smartphones, tablets, laptops, and TVs. But all that use has a big environmental impact. Mining, smelting, and casting aluminum is a carbon-intense process, and the production of new aluminum alone accounts for 1% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.
But Apple is hoping to lessen their aluminum-associated carbon footprint, and the company announced this week that it bought the first-ever commercial batch of carbon-free aluminum.
Apple purchased this carbon-free aluminum from Elysis, a Montreal-based joint venture between Alcoa Corporation and Rio Tinto Aluminum, two of the world’s largest aluminum suppliers. Apple previously invested in Elysis, partnering with the two companies as well as the governments of Quebec and Canada to put in a combined $144 million towards the research and development of this carbon-free technology.
For more than 130 years, aluminum has been produced the same way, first by refining bauxite ore to get aluminum oxide, and then smelting the aluminum oxide to release pure aluminum. It’s during this smelting process, which passes an electric current through large blocks of carbon called anodes, that carbon burns, thus creating carbon dioxide. Elysis says it has created a carbon-free smelting technology that replaces those carbon anodes with a ceramic anode, which releases oxygen instead of CO2.
“Bringing this revolutionary technology to market is part of Apple’s commitment to a clean energy future, one where the best products for our customers are also the best for our planet,” Lisa Jackson, vice president of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives at Apple said in a statement. This first purchase of carbon-free aluminum marks a “milestone,” the company added. Aluminum is a part of many Apple products like iMacs, iPhones, and Apple Watches.
A spokesperson for the company did not say what percentage of all Apple’s aluminum this first carbon-free purchase accounts for, or if and when the company hopes to only buy carbon-free aluminum. In the company’s initial announcement about its investment in Elysis, it said that it will “continue to provide technical support” to the venture, and that Elysis will develop this carbon-free aluminum technology for larger scale production, with a plan to commercialize it more broadly by 2024.