Tech advances promise “historic” shift in sustainable aluminium
The automotive industry is under pressure to clean up emissions from both vehicles and manufacturing operations. For many, that means exploring new production methods and materials.
Lightweight and infinitely recyclable, aluminium has been championed by manufacturers as they scramble to reduce vehicle weight and improve lifecycle emissions. Lightweight aluminium-intensive vehicles have typically 12% lower lifecycle CO2 emissions compared to steel vehicles, achieving a carbon emissions payback of 60,000km when higher carbon inputs from raw materials are offset with improved fuel economy.
The trouble is that the process of producing aluminium requires enormous amounts of energy and accounts for between 2% and 4% of total global emissions. The variance depends on the measurement technique, but there are also huge differences among different aluminium producers and regions of the world. Those that rely on renewable sources of electricity have a much smaller carbon footprint. In Europe, for instance, the production of one tonne of aluminium produces about four tonnes of CO2 equivalent. In China, that same tonne will produce around 15 tonnes, according to consultancy CRU. That’s because most of its smelters are coal-fired. The global industry average is about 12 tonnes.
“Not all aluminium is created equally,” said Jerome Lucaes, Marketing Director, Sustainability, at Russian aluminium giant RUSAL. The supplier has been working with automotive producers around the world, and its aluminium is used in a range of applications such as wheels, engine heads, structural components and crash management systems. “With our low-carbon aluminium ALLOW we are leading the sustainability shift within the aluminium industry,” Lucaes told Automotive World. But that could be just the start of a radical improvement in aluminium sustainability.
Spotlight on RUSAL
RUSAL’s operations produce about four tonnes of CO2 equivalent for every one tonne of aluminium (direct and indirect emissions). A big part of it is down to hydropower. “Our core smelting operations are favourably located close to Siberian hydropower plants, which enables us to have access to clean, renewable power and to subsequently have one of the lowest carbon footprints in the industry,” asserted Lucaes.
Hydropower is the energy source for more than 90% of RUSAL’s operations. By 2025 it wants carbon-free power to account for 95% of its energy mix. “We are focusing efforts on perfecting the lowest carbon aluminium possible through harnessing new, advanced technologies,” he said. “But if we want to get to net zero, we need to develop our own technologies, too.”
This is why RUSAL has been developing inert anode technology, which it regards as a potential game-changer. The traditional smelting process involves passing an electrical current through a carbon anode placed in a bath that contains alumina and other materials. The company is working on a new, non-carbon anode that releases oxygen rather than carbon. “RUSAL has been on the cusp of developing inert anode technology for quite some time,” confirmed Lucaes.
It recently started testing a pilot industrial electrolytic cell with inert anodes, which has an improved design and a record low carbon footprint in comparison to the previous one. “The new generation of inert anode electrolytic cell has several fundamentally new technical solutions that reduce the carbon footprint closer to zero of CO2 per tonne of aluminium produced, as well as reducing operating costs during the production process. It may still take some time for us to finalise the procedures and start mass production, but we are on the right track.”
The potential is significant. According to company estimates, using this technology to produce one mt of aluminium emits 0.9 mt of oxygen instead of 1.4 mt of CO2. “This will mark a historic moment in the aluminium industry once adopted,” projected Lucaes. “It will lead to the complete elimination of greenhouse gases and polyaromatic hydrocarbon emissions.”
Cleaning up aluminium production is only part of the solution. At the moment, the carbon price is not reflected in the price of the metal. “This is unsustainable, as the aluminium industry needs incentives to build the business case and invest in decarbonisation,” he said. “At the same time, there are several leading companies with their own low carbon products. To stimulate more consumption for low carbon materials, more transparency across the supply chains is required to help consumers make well-informed decisions.”
RUSAL offers clients independently verified carbon footprint statements from the smelter of origin to perform lifecycle assessments of products. Many automotive customers are prioritising sustainable sourcing, asking questions about pollution, carbon and raw materials. In general, much more attention is being devoted towards lifecycle assessments and traceability of the carbon footprint across the industry value chain. “Today, automotive manufacturers as well as consumers are becoming more aware of the risks that unsustainable production can have for business and society more broadly. Automakers will look at these long systemic risks and make changes to de-risk their portfolio, their business model and their procurement,” he said.
Aggressive carbon reductions targets have been set by some of the industry’s leading players, with many aiming for carbon neutrality. Valmet Automotive has pledged to make its Uusikaupunki, Finland car plant CO2 neutral by the end of 2021. In Germany, Mercedes- Benz Cars has pledged to make its operations CO2-neutral by 2022. For Volvo Cars the aim is to have all its manufacturing plants attain climate-neutral status by 2025.
Helping these companies distinguish responsible products goes hand in hand with these targets. “Revealing the carbon footprint of aluminium using a comprehensible and broadly applied threshold is now the main responsibility we have to our customers,” said Lucaes. “There is growing pressure on the producers in the automotive industry—and other industries—from the end-consumers who are not willing to opt for second best. These consumers are well aware of the ‘greener’ options and will be paying attention to the carbon footprint of all the good they use—from their laptops to their cars.”
The quicker the sector can address its carbon footprint, the better, as usage is poised for growth. “Over the years, aluminium has become an integral part of the automotive manufacturing process and is now recognised within the industry as the material of choice to lightweight cars,” said Lucaes. The average aluminium content in Europe, for example, has jumped from 160kg in 2015 to 180kg today and is expected to reach 200kg in 2025. That makes it the fastest-growing automotive material, and much of that is down to its use in electrified vehicles (EVs).
Some of the more bullish estimates project that EVs could account for half of all new car sales by 2030, up from 8% currently. “Low carbon aluminium is very much a part of the future when it comes to mobility,” he predicted. “Switching to EVs will imply that the materials they are made of are sustainable, as well. Producing EVs with a significantly lower level of emissions using aluminium with a large carbon footprint does not make much sense. This is where low carbon materials serve as an ultimate solution.”
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic could also serve as a real driver towards the transition to more sustainable aluminium. “The world today is fully aware of the dramatic consequences of climate change as one of the major risks to the global economy. Indeed, COVID-19 has, if anything, changed our whole approach to risk and made us realise that we need to address the threat posed by a changing climate and ‘build back better’,” Lucaes observed. He believes that the industry’s gradual recovery will take place alongside a more conscious attitude towards the carbon content of materials.
Long before the pandemic, 2020 was earmarked to be “the year of climate action” with COP26 in Glasgow acting as a major milestone for both business and society to engage in decarbonisation efforts to meet the Paris Agreement on limiting global temperature rises. “After the pandemic people are going to be much more risk averse and much more alert to new and unseen risks going forward. And climate change is clearly the new big threat for humanity,” he added. “Investors and consumers are going to be much less patient, and they will want to see a clear plan from the world’s biggest emitters, including from the raw material sector and the automotive industry.”
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