Decarbonizing the aluminum industry requires technology, investment and policy change
Aluminum is essential to modern society and stands to play an important part in future sustainable applications. As the industry seeks to reduce its climate impact, electrification is one solution that could help reduce emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. So says Pernelle Nunez, Deputy Secretary General and Sustainability Director at the International Aluminium Institute.
The International Aluminium Institute (IAI) represents the global primary aluminum industry and seeks to promote the industry’s sustainable development and increase demand for aluminum products by raising awareness of their properties.
For aluminum to be a material of choice for these types of applications, the industry is aware it must be produced in a sustainable way.
“Aluminum has properties that make it ideal for modern life, as well as future sustainable applications,” says Pernelle Nunez, who is responsible for the IAI’s sustainability work program and manages its Greenhouse Gas Pathways Working Group and Environment and Energy Committee. “It has been highlighted as a key metal in the energy transition because of its use in photovoltaic cells, energy storage and electrical infrastructure. For aluminum to be a material of choice for these types of applications, the industry is aware it must be produced in a sustainable way.”
Direct and indirect emissions
a paper by the Mission Possible Partnership, an alliance of climate leaders focused on supercharging decarbonization in the world’s highest-emitting industries, indirect emissions due to electricity consumption represent the greatest opportunity for the aluminum industry to reduce its carbon footprint (about 60 percent of sectoral emissions), but it must also consider how to address its direct emissions (about 30 to 35 percent).According to
“There are two major sources of direct emissions in the aluminum sector: the consumption of carbon anodes during aluminum smelting and the generation of thermal energy for high‑temperature processes. Unlike renewable electricity, which can be used to address indirect emissions, there is no ready solution to address direct emissions,” says the report, which goes on to identify four crucial focus areas for the future: inert anodes, green hydrogen, engineering improvements to existing processes and regulation and investment.
According to Nunez, the aluminum industry accounts for about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually, while the primary aluminum industry contributes to more than 90 percent of the sector’s 1.1 billion tons of CO2 equivalent emissions, most of which are related to electricity generation.
“The IAI has outlined three key technology pathways for the industry to decarbonize including electricity decarbonization, elimination of direct and thermal energy emissions and maximizing circularity and resource efficiency,” she says.
Electric heating can reduce emissions and dependence on fossil fuels
Electric heating is one example of a future-focused technology for the aluminum industry, since it has potential to replace processes that require heat and steam without the combustion of fossil fuels.
“It could play an important role in processes that are not yet electrified, for example alumina refining or electric furnaces for casting, remelting or recycling,” she says. “Increased electrification and power from renewable sources is a way to reduce emissions across many sectors, and electric heating is one technology that can contribute to emissions reduction in the aluminum industry.”
So what is preventing the decarbonization of the aluminum industry?
“Challenges include limited access to the capital needed to make the necessary investments, the need to scale up and deploy nascent technology, a lack of policy environments that incentivize circularity and enable the rapid deployment of technology, as well as the need for more partnerships across the value chain,” says Nunez, adding that these obstacles cannot be addressed by the industry alone.
Partnerships and collaboration are needed
“It will take coordination with the financial community, technology providers, power providers, customers and regulators to bring the rapid change needed,” she says.
The IAI is supporting the industry to overcome some of these obstacles through its GHG Pathways. For example, it seeks to bring actors together, offer a data-driven approach to the development of a sector pathway, and inform key stakeholders about the need to align with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
“The Pathways indicate that the technologies that will have the greatest impact on emissions reductions are those that can help cut electricity-related emissions,” says Nunez. “A whole suite of technologies will need to be deployed in the future to enable sustainability. There isn’t one single solution.”