Aluminum is everywhere: in the structure of the Empire State Building, in your window frames, your fridge, your car, and even your smartphone. Light, durable, and almost infinitely recyclable, aluminum—or aluminium, depending on which side of the Atlantic Ocean you’re on—has long been a material of choice in the automotive, construction, and aerospace industries. And with the continuing rise of electric vehicles, which benefit from the material’s lightweight properties, demand for aluminum is expected to double in the next 10 years.
The problem is that aluminum does not occur naturally, and production requires huge amounts of coal-powered electricity. Enter low-carbon aluminum, which was used at an architectural scale for the first time during COP26.
Made entirely from low-carbon aluminum, the pavilion was first exhibited in London in September. Then it was dismantled and reassembled in Glasgow, Scotland, where it served as an outdoor meeting space during the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference these past two weeks.
The pavilion was designed by London-based architecture and design studio Nebbia Works. Spanning 1,200 square feet, it is made of 27 individual aluminum plates that are bolted together to form one canopy. From there, a series of panels peel down from the canopy to form legs. This makes the structure, which weighs 6 tons, self-supporting. So when it’s time to pack up and move, the structure will be easy to disassemble, and no parts will end up in the landfill. “What you see is a product of how it’s made,” says Madhav Kidao, who cofounded Nebbia Works with Brando Posocco.
The structure can be repurposed a few times before the aluminum begins to degrade because it is soft and unfinished (which makes it easier to recycle). When that happens, the aluminum plates can be melted back down into an ingot and virtually all the material can be recycled. “Aluminum is so ubiquitous in the world, so when it goes back into an ingot, it’s very likely it’ll become window frames, or car parts, or trains, or aluminum cans,” Kidao says. “You make something that is so precious and beautiful, then it goes off to become something completely different.”
Since the 19th century, nearly 1 billion tons of aluminum have been produced and about 75% of it is still in use. The way it’s produced, however, is cause for concern. Today, aluminum accounts for 1.1 billion tons of CO2 emissions per year and generates around 2% of global human-caused emissions.
The pavilion’s low-carbon aluminum, which was produced by green energy and metals company En+, performs just like regular aluminum. But its production is 85% less carbon intensive than the global average, thanks in part to the company’s use of hydropower plants on Lake Baikal, in Mongolia.
According to some forecasts, the demand for aluminum will exceed 80 million tons a year by 2023. Low-carbon aluminum could have a significant impact as industries scramble to lower their carbon emissions by 2030. For now, the pavilion acts as a reminder of the critical role low-carbon aluminum can play for industries looking to turn the tide on climate change.