Rio Tinto is confident that in six years the process it uses to produce aluminium will no longer produce sulphur dioxide.
In fact, once the technology has been retrofitted to BC Works in Kitimat and at aluminium smelters across Canada, the process will instead be producing oxygen.
“It’s a very big deal – it’s like the Holy Grail of aluminium production,” said BC Works general manager Gareth Manderson. “Apart from eliminating sulphur dioxide, this process will also remove six and a half million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, the equivalent of taking 1.2 million vehicles off our roads.”
Manderson said the ability to produce aluminium without having to use carbon in the process is the most significant innovation in the aluminum industry in more than a century.
The traditional process to extract aluminium from its oxide, alumina, uses large amounts of electricity, and coke and pitch, resulting in significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.
The new process uses inert anode smelting technology, which not only emits oxygen and removes greenhouse gases, but also reduces operating costs by 15 per cent and increases production by 15 per cent.
Manderson said the new process, which has been successfully tested on a small scale in a laboratory, will be further developed in a joint venutre between Rio Tinto and its Canadian competitor, Alcoa.
Named Elysis, the joint venture will embark on a two-phase, $558 million project over the next six years.
Technology company Apple, which has invested $13 million in the venture, will provide technical support for the project.
A further $60 million will be invested by the federal government, Quebec investing another $60 million for a four per cent equity stake in the joint venture.
“The fact that we have entered into a partnership with our Canadian competitor demonstrates how important partnerships are.
“We will be improving our regional competitiveness and our ability to further our roles as environmental stewards,” said Manderson.
This new company, which will be headquartered in Quebec, will directly employ 100 people, and has the potential to create more than 1,000 jobs by 2030, while securing 10,500 existing aluminum jobs in Canada.
Elysis will further develop the technology so it can be licensed for retrofit at existing smelters or used to design and build new facilities.
Development to commercialize the process will take place at a facility in Quebec.
The new process will be developed and will likely be ready to be sold at the beginning of 2024.