Today’s Solutions: October 19, 2021

In July, Apple made a pledge to be carbon-neutral by 2030. Its a lofty target for the tech giant, but it has a novel material that it believes will help the company accomplish its goal.

The new material is a “low-carbon” aluminum that it can use to make its sleek laptops. The lightweight metal is chemically the same as the mass-produced version used in products like foil, soda cans, bike frames, and car doors. But it’s made using a different industrial process — one that doesn’t result in the direct release of greenhouse gases.

On average, the electrochemical process of smelting aluminum contributes about 14 percent of total emissions from global aluminum production. Another 70 percent comes from the electricity used to run the smelters, said Guðrún Arnbjörg Sævarsdóttir, an associate professor at Reykjavik University in Iceland.

However, in places where smelters tap into clean power, there is virtually no emissions from electricity use. So the biggest carbon challenge is the smelting process itself.

Apple’s low-carbon aluminum supplier uses an alternative electrochemical process that emits only oxygen. The Montreal-based supplier, Elysis, uses materials that can separate aluminum without causing a chemical reaction. 

This is like the Holy Grail of aluminum production,” Sævarsdóttir said of the efforts.

Apple is poised to become the first company to include some of this low-carbon aluminum in its products. But while the laptops prove this new approach is viable, researchers are still figuring out how to scale up the material’s production so it can be an option for the entire aluminum sector. If they succeed, the alternative process could eliminate a significant chunk of aluminum’s carbon footprint, which amounts to around 1 percent of global emissions.

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