British-Australian mining company Rio Tinto is set to debut a novel carbon-free aluminum smelting technology at its facility in Canada. This initiative aims to accelerate the shift to more environmentally friendly production methods and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Elysis technology, which replaces traditional smelting processes, promises to eliminate all direct greenhouse gases, producing oxygen instead. This groundbreaking technology will be installed at Rio Tinto’s Arvida smelter in Quebec, where the company will design, engineer, and build a demonstration plant with ten pots operating at 100 kiloamperes (kA).

According to a statement from Rio Tinto, the company and the Government of Québec, through Investissement Québec, will invest $179 million (CAN$235 million) and $106 million (CAN$140 million) respectively, totaling US$285 million (CAN$375 million).

“This pilot operation will be a critical step in Rio Tinto’s learning journey towards full-scale industrialization of the Elysis technology,” the company stated.

Aluminum is favored for developing sustainable products due to its strength, lightweight, and recyclability. However, stricter emission regulations are pushing manufacturers and producers to decarbonize their operations and supply chains.

Elysis, a joint venture between two major aluminum industry firms, Alcoa and Rio Tinto, is spearheading this mission. The Canadian and Quebec governments, through Investissement Québec, have committed $58 million ($80 million CAD) each to support the Elysis project.

Elysis technology is based on an inert anode concept. Traditional electrolysis cells use alumina with an electrode and a carbon anode, resulting in aluminum and CO2 emissions. The inert anode technology eliminates the carbon component, so separating aluminum from oxygen releases only oxygen, not CO2.

This technology could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of numerous products in consumer goods, construction, transportation, and electricity industries. According to Rio Tinto, if used solely in Canada, this technology has the potential to cut annual GHG emissions by about 7 million metric tons, equivalent to removing 1.8 million automobiles from the road.

Additionally, the technology promises to enhance occupational health and safety, lower capital intensity and operational costs, and boost productivity. It can be retrofitted into existing smelters or integrated into new installations.

Rio Tinto anticipates that its new plant will begin production in 2027, with a capacity to manufacture up to 2,500 tons of commercial-quality aluminum annually without directly emitting any greenhouse gases. The plant’s proximity to the existing Arvida smelter allows the use of casting and alumina supply facilities.

Elysis joint venture partner Alcoa will have the option to purchase a portion of the aluminum produced by Rio Tinto at the Arvida demonstration plant during the first four years, through an offtake agreement.

“In addition to delivering even lower-carbon primary aluminum for our customers, this investment will allow Rio Tinto to build its expertise on installing and operating this new technology, while the Elysis joint venture continues its research and development work to scale it up to its full potential,” said Jérôme Pécresse, Chief Executive at Rio Tinto.

The joint venture is also scaling up the Elysis technology, with larger prototype 450 kA cells being constructed at Rio Tinto’s Alma smelter, integrated at the end of an existing potline. Elysis has commenced commissioning these industrial prototype cells, with startup scheduled for 2024.

This pioneering technology marks a significant step towards a greener aluminum industry, paving the way for a more sustainable future.

By Impact Lab