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.
Sites certified as responsible by Aluminium Stewardship Initiative
Bauxite mines in Australia, Brazil* and Guinea*
Alumina refineries in Australia, Brazil* and Canada
Aluminium smelters in Canada, Australia, NZ, Iceland & Oman*
Hydropower plants generating most of the electricity we use in Canada
Port & rail facilities
Research & development centres
*non-managed Joint Venture
START Responsible Aluminium
We all want to know more about the products we buy – where they come from and how they are made. So to help our customers meet this demand from consumers, we created START – the first digital sustainability label for the aluminium industry.
Using blockchain technology, START works like a ‘nutrition label’ for aluminium – providing transparency and traceability across our supply chain, so end users can see environmental, social and governance information across ten areas including carbon footprint, water use and recycled content.
And by showing how our aluminium is made – from mine to market – we are empowering our customers and theirs to make a more sustainable choice.
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.
This certification gives our customers independent assurance that the metal they use to make aeroplane parts, cars, smartphones and other products has been made to standards that promote the protection of biodiversity, respect for Indigenous peoples’ rights, water management and low-carbon emissions. ASI also creates a traceability mechanism – the first of its kind for any industrial metal – so that companies like AB InBev can be sure that the aluminium they buy has been manufactured to meet ASI standards at every stage of the process.
The use of Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI) Certified Aluminium is an important milestone towards reducing the impact that the world’s second most used base metal has on the planet.
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.
Visit the Elysis website >
Supporting Australia’s first Indigenous-owned mine
At nearly the northernmost edge of the Northern Territory sits the first mine in Australia to be 100% owned and operated, across the supply chain, by Traditional Owners – the Gumatj, one of the Yolngu clans in the area.
Located at Gulkula, in Northeast Arnhem Land, the mine provides employment opportunities for Traditional Owners. Among these are new graduates from the Gulkula Mine Training Centre, partly funded with A$2.4 million from Rio Tinto, that gives on-the-job training and support to the Yolngu people to help them build mining careers in the Northern Territory and beyond.
We have worked closely with Traditional Owners from the start, and we are committed to the success of this mine – both as a customer and a partner.
We buy bauxite from the mine to sell to international customers, and celebrated the mine’s first bauxite shipment in 2018.
Repowering our Aluminium operations in Queensland, Australia
While aluminium is essential for low-carbon solutions, including lightweight cars and energy efficient buildings, it takes a lot of energy to produce.
As Queensland’s largest energy user, we have an important role to play in driving the development of renewable energy sources to power our Queensland-based Aluminium operations and supporting the state’s renewable energy targets.
We have called for proposals to develop large-scale wind, solar and firming energy generating systems that can progressively start supplying power to the Boyne smelter (BSL), the Yarwun alumina refinery and the Queensland Alumina refinery (QAL). We expect this future wind and solar generated energy will help underpin Central Queensland’s transformation into a sustainable green industrial hub.
Transitioning Queensland’s energy source on this scale is a multi-year and multi-stakeholder undertaking and is an outcome of the Statement of Cooperation we signed with the Queensland Government in October 2021 to work towards establishing more renewable energy in Central Queensland.
Frequently asked questions
How much renewables capacity is Rio Tinto seeking through this RFP?
The three Gladstone Aluminium operations require 1,140MW of reliable power, consisting of 960MW for BSL and 180MW for Yarwun and QAL. 1GW of reliable power is equal to about 4GW of wind and solar in a good location with firming, so we are seeking proposals for more than 4GW, as not all proposals will come to fruition.
What capital investment will be required?
This is a Request For Proposals (RFP) process only at this stage – we have not committed capital. Any investment in Queensland renewable projects will be in line with our capital allocation programme and subject to our rigorous investment review processes.
We anticipate that the RFP will flush out many projects at various stages of development and with different funding options. For example, some projects may be developed and owned by third parties, and sell us the power, while we may take a greater role in development of others.
What would Rio Tinto’s role be on the projects?
We are considering all options, from building and developing ourselves to just taking the power supply. All projects will need to be developed in line with our environmental, social and governance standards – including working closely with local communities – and relevant state and federal laws.
What’s the timeframe?
We want to secure assets that can be developed in stages. We would hope to have some projects delivering power to the market by 2025 but expect the majority to be built and commissioned by 2030.