Apple just invested $US10 million to make aluminium with a 'completely new process'

Canada
  • Apple is investing in a new joint venture with aluminium giants Alcoa and Rio Tinto.
  • Apple uses a lot of aluminium in its products.
  • The joint venture is called Elysis, and its focus will be on working to scale and commercialize a new aluminium manufacturing process that doesn’t generate greenhouse gases.

Apple’s most famous products are made out of aluminium – its iconic MacBooks, iPhones, and iPads are clad in the metal, often carved out of a single block.

The company’s prodigious appetite for aluminium is a big reason why Apple announced on Thursday that it’s investing just over $US10 million ($US13 million Canadian dollars) into a major new joint venture called Elysis that’s going to try a completely new method for producing industrial quantities of aluminium.

Apple is teaming up with Alcoa and Rio Tinto Aluminium to develop the new method. Altogether, the three giants, plus the Canadian government and Quebec, are investing $US144 million in total to develop the technology. If all goes well, the process could go on sale beginning in 2024.

The big advantage to the new technique, according to the companies, is that it’s much more environmentally friendly. When it works, the new process eliminates greenhouse gas emissions from the process. Apple is interested because it uses so much aluminium, as well as its corporate focus on clean energy. Apple will provide technical support to Elysis.

Canadians are excited because the venture will be based in Quebec. In the statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it “will create and maintain thousands of jobs for Canadians.”

Apple said in a release that its involvement with the new process started in 2015, when Apple engineers came across the new technology at Alcoa in Pittsburgh when looking for a cleaner way to mass-produce aluminium. They were able to get Rio Tinto on board, and three years later, the three companies have formed a joint venture.

AppleA photo of some Elysis aluminium

If it’s effectively commercialized, it would represent one of the biggest changes to the aluminium production process since Alcoa founder Charles Hall started experimenting with small-batch smelting at his parents’ house in Oberlin, Ohio in the 1880s.

Here’s how Apple explains it in its release:

After meeting with the biggest aluminium companies, independent labs, and startups around the world, Apple engineers Brian Lynch, Jim Yurko, and Katie Sassaman found their answer at Alcoa Corporation.

Aluminium has been mass produced the same way since 1886, when it was pioneered by Alcoa’s founder, Charles Hall. The process involves applying a strong electrical current to alumina, which removes oxygen. Both Hall’s original experiments and today’s largest smelters use a carbon material that burns during the process, producing greenhouse gases.

Lynch, Yurko and Sassaman learned that Alcoa had designed a completely new process that replaces that carbon with an advanced conductive material, and instead of carbon dioxide, it releases oxygen. The potential environmental impact was huge, and to help realise it quickly, Alcoa needed a partner.

Apple CEO Tim Cook called the project “ambitious,” and said in a statement that he looks “forward to one day being able to use aluminium produced without direct greenhouse gas emissions in the manufacturing of our products.”

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