The Questions That Remain About Apple’s New Carbon-Free Aluminum

Apple supported the development of an aluminum production method that releases oxygen, rather than greenhouse gases, during the smelting process.
Apple supported the development of an aluminum production method that releases oxygen, rather than greenhouse gases, during the smelting process.
Photo: Apple

By 2030, Apple has promised to make its products and supply chain carbon-neutral. That’s a lot of work to accomplish in fewer than 10 years, especially for a company responsible for a whole lot of extractive and energy-intensive products.

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As part of this commitment, the tech company is helping develop the world’s “first-ever direct carbon-free aluminum smelting process.” Aluminum production makes up about 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions: 400 million tons of carbon emissions a year. Should Apple actually discover a way for the smelting process to emit oxygen instead of greenhouse gases, that’ll be a gamechanger for the carbon footprint of not only gadgets but potentially the construction and transportation industries. That’s a big if, and Apple hasn’t been super forthcoming about exactly how its aluminum will achieve carbon neutrality from mining to refining.

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Apple’s announcement last week is only the latest in the company’s attempt to clean up its supply chain and energy use. In 2018, the company announced it would use 100% recycled aluminum and declared it was going 100% renewable. However, as long as the company is selling hundreds of millions of products that are notoriously impossible to repair, the company is doing the planet a disservice by producing more stuff.

That being said, this new method of producing aluminum would be revolutionary if Apple indeed succeeds. Aluminum production alone makes up a quarter of the company’s carbon footprint. The tech company is working with two of the world’s leading aluminum manufacturers, Alcoa and Rio Tinto, which have created a partnership they’ve called Elysis where all these players can come together to research and create carbon-free aluminum. This partnership kicked off in 2018 with the goal of having the tech ready by 2024, well in line with Apple’s 2030 goal of carbon neutrality.

If you have no idea how this process works, let me break it down. Aluminum comes from bauxite. Producers use electricity to break the rock down to become aluminum. The process involves the use of carbon anodes, which are essentially carbon blocks that conduct electricity. These blocks are made out of, as the name suggests, carbon! This process requires a ton of energy and, thus, results in a bunch of greenhouse gas emissions, including perfluorocarbons, which is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (it also releases carbon dioxide as well). The process can also release other pollutants into the air, such as sulfur dioxide. In short, aluminum production is bad for the planet and public health to say nothing of human rights concerns around bauxite mining.

So if Apple and friends have figured out a way to transform part of the process, that’s pretty dope. Elysis has been producing this so-called carbon-free metal at its center near Pittsburgh since 2009. The group is now trying to scale this technology up so that it can meet the demands of players like Apple.

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However, Apple and Elysis were cagey about the process and how they’re assessing the environmental impacts and claims of carbon-free production. In fact, this very story is running more than a week later than we would’ve liked because Earther kept trying to get clear answers from both players to no avail.

Elysis doesn’t provide much info on how this process releases oxygen instead of greenhouse gases, only noting it would replace the use of carbon anodes in the aluminum smelting process. It doesn’t share any information on what the blocks are replaced with or how this new process works. This is to protect its research and proprietary info, but that does make me a bit skeptical. Sometimes, in an effort to clean up one mess, companies wind up creating another.

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The company is also only calling its smelting process “carbon-free.” That doesn’t mean the entire production of the aluminum Apple purchases will be though it should be “carbon neutral” by 2030. Gabrielle Gaustad, the dean of Alfred University’s Inamori School of Engineering, told Earther that’s an issue. This new process would be a “massive technological step forward,” but this carbon-free tag may be “misleading,” she said. Pittsburgh, where this research is happening, is plugged into a grid that still relies on coal power, which is among the dirtiest sources of energy.

“The issue with calling this aluminum ‘carbon-free’ is that they don’t account for the processes further up the supply chain it seems,” Gaustad said.

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When Earther asked Elysis specific questions around whether the Pittsburgh facility is run on clean energy, it did not answer them. It also didn’t address whether the carbon anode replacement has been vetted for other environmental consequences or whether they feel confident that this alternative won’t create new issues.

Apple, too, didn’t answer any specific questions Earther asked. Instead, it copy and pasted some 2,299 words from its environmental reports and white papers to highlight all that it’s doing to generally make its supply chain carbon neutral. It failed, however, to offer specifics on how it will deal with sources of emissions outside the smelting process or if that Pittsburgh facility runs on clean or renewable energy. Instead, it pointed to its reliance on less aluminum and recycled aluminum for its products. All great points, but Apple didn’t answer the specific yes-no type answers Earther asked about the process and how it would account for emissions.

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It’s great to see major companies using their platforms and scientific know-how to find alternatives to the climate crisis, but you know what would be greater? If they were more transparent about the alternatives they’re working on. Oh, and also not creating a system of obsolescence, taking away people’s right to repair, and pushing more consumption in the first place. If we produced and consumed less stuff, then the environmental crisis we’re now facing would not be the crisis it has become in the first place.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

rvincent1960
Times up, time to leave!

Bwahahahaha!!!

Rio Tinto? This would be the same Rio Tinto that are such a socially aware company they blasted a 46,000 year old cave of major aboriginal and archaeological significance and then declared they weren’t sorry???

And Alcoa who’s Wagerup refinery operation contaminated local communities even drawing the attenuation of no less than Erin Brockovich (yes the same one) as it caused far reaching health problems.

Sounds like a partnership made in HELL!