Lightweight and infinitely recyclable, aluminium is found in everything from jet engines to electric vehicles to mobile phones. It is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, and one of the world’s fastest growing major metals.
But we are only scratching the surface of the opportunities for aluminium to be a part of our everyday lives. For example, analysts predict the use of aluminium in lightweight cars and trucks in North America will increase by about 30% – from 177 kilograms per vehicle in 2015 to 227 kilograms in 2025. According to the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI), for every 10% reduction in the weight of a vehicle, fuel economy increases by about 7%. Over its lifetime, every kilogram of aluminium that replaces heavier materials in a car or light truck can save a net 20 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions.
Aluminium is made from bauxite, or aluminium ore. Bauxite is the basic raw material that is refined into alumina, which in turn is sent to smelters for processing into aluminium.
First discovered near Les Beaux in the South of France in 1821, bauxite was initially called “beauxite”. In 1886, Charles Martin Hall and Paul Héroult independently developed a process for making aluminium from alumina. And in 1887, Austrian scientist Karl Josef Bayer patented his self-titled process for extracting alumina from bauxite. Today, the Bayer process and the Hall-Héroult process are still combined to process bauxite ore into alumina, and then convert it into aluminium.
We are a global leader in aluminium, with a large-scale, vertically-integrated business: bauxite mines and alumina refineries as well as smelters producing aluminium certified as responsible. Managing the process from start to finish allows us to bring quality products to our customers reliably and efficiently: from high-grade bauxite for the global seaborne trade to sustainably sourced aluminium for beverage packaging to new, lighter alloys for the automotive industry. Our Canadian operations average in the first decile of the industry cost-curve and produce aluminium using clean, renewable hydropower.
We produce some of the highest quality, lowest-carbon footprint aluminium in the world: the greenhouse gas emissions intensity of our managed Atlantic Operations smelters represents less than one-fifth of the industry average. Through ELYSIS, our joint venture with Alcoa, supported by Apple and the governments of Canada and Quebec, we are helping to further develop a breakthrough smelting technology to produce aluminium with no direct greenhouse gas emissions, which is now being used in Apple products.
In 2018, we became the first company to receive certification from the ASI as producing “responsible” aluminium in Canada. Our diverse alloys are designed to meet customer needs. In 2019, we launched Revolution-Al™, a new aluminium alloy developed to make lighter car wheels, which can help to make cars safer and more appealing to end consumers with reduced CO2 emissions.
We are also reducing the volume of waste we produce and creating new value for our business, such as supplying anhydrite, a by-product from our Vaudreuil alumina refinery in Canada, to be a fertiliser to our neighbouring blueberry growers.
A first in responsible aluminium
We are now offering Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI) certified aluminium from all of our Canadian operations, through a ‘chain of custody’ spanning Rio Tinto’s Gove bauxite mine in Australia to its alumina refinery, aluminium smelters and casthouses in Quebec and British Columbia, Canada.
The ASI aims to create sustainability and transparency throughout the aluminium industry. It has developed the world’s first global Responsible Aluminium Standard, used to assess environmental, social and governance practices across the aluminium supply chain for responsible sourcing. This is the highest internationally recognised standard for robust environmental, social and governance practices across the life cycle of aluminium production, use and recycling.
Emissions-free aluminium through ELYSIS
In 2018, we launched ELYSIS, a partnership with Alcoa, supported by Apple and the governments of Canada and Québec. ELYSIS is further developing breakthrough technology that eliminates direct greenhouse gas emissions from the aluminium smelting process, replacing them with pure, clean oxygen. In Canada alone, if this technology were to be used at every smelter in the country, it could eliminate the equivalent of 6.5 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions – roughly equivalent to taking nearly 1.8 million cars off the road.
ELYSIS will work towards bringing this technology to the market at its Research and Development Centre, located within Rio Tinto’s Complexe Jonquière. ELYSIS has selected our Alma smelter in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec, for the first installation and demonstration of its inert anode technology at a commercial size of 450 kiloamperes (kA).
In November 2021, ELYSIS successfully produced aluminium without any direct greenhouse gas emissions at its Research and Development Centre using a full industrial design at a size comparable to small smelting cells operating in the industry today.
In March 2022, Apple announced that they would purchase a first batch of commercial-purity aluminium produced at the Research and Development Centre to manufacture their new iPhone SE.
And in a step towards putting a fully traceable beverage can in the hands of consumers, in June 2022 we partnered with Corona Canada to launch of Canada’s first specially-marked, low carbon beverage can, manufactured by Ball Corporation. The cans, now available through a pilot in Ontario, use Rio Tinto aluminium and leverage ELYSISTM technology. As part of this limited release, the 1.2 million cans produced have a QR code printed on them to inspire consumers to learn more about the cans’ low carbon footprint.
Work is now focused on scaling up ELYSISTM technology for even larger commercial-size cells, which should become operational in 2023. Construction of these prototype cells is now well underway at the end of an existing potline at Rio Tinto’s Alma smelter.