Russian aluminium producer Rusal is targeting 2021 to roll out a carbon-free version of the metal, as it looks to tap into growing consumer demand for responsibly sourced commodities and raw materials.
The timeline puts Rusal in direct competition with Rio Tinto, Alcoa and Apple, which are also working on a greener way of mass-producing aluminium. Apple is planning to use the metal in its iPhone and laptop computers.
“Management are very excited about what we have,” Lord Barker of Battle, executive chairman of En+ Group, the holding company for Rusal, told the Financial Times. “We should be in a position to roll out a commercial product by 2021.”
Metals and mining companies are trying to show that they can be environmentally friendly and also play a part in the shift to a low-carbon economy. En+ reckons the trend for lighter and more efficient car bodies will boost demand for aluminium.
While there have been some efforts to develop low-carbon aluminium brands, these have focused mainly on smelters powered by hydroelectric dams. The focus is now on developing a greener way of processing alumina, the key ingredient used to make the metal.
Aluminium is often referred to as solid electricity because of the large amounts of power required to transform alumina into refined metal.
In the traditional smelting process, in use for more than 100 years, a carbon anode is placed in a bath that contains alumina and other materials. A strong electrical current is then passed through the bath to produce aluminium.
The joint venture between Rio, Alcoa and Apple is working on an advanced conductive material that releases oxygen rather than carbon. They plan to start licensing their technology by 2024.
“An inert anode is where you want to end up,” said Lord Barker. “We have been working on this technology for some years now.”
Lord Barker said En+, which was previously controlled by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, was also seeking partners to help develop its technology.
“We don’t have anything to announce now . . . but these things are much more possible now that we are not oligarch controlled.”
En+ and Rusal were plunged into turmoil last year when they were hit by US sanctions, a move intended to punish allies of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, including Mr Deripaska.
The sanctions were lifted in January after Mr Deripaska signed up to a deal that reduced his stake in the company from about 65 per cent to 45 per cent and 35 per cent of its voting rights.
“The great things about the governance reforms is that we are going to be able to reach out to new strategic partners, academic partners internationally, in order to really try and drive our research and development,” said Lord Barker.
En+, which listed in London in 2017, uses hydropower from rivers in Siberia to power most of its smelters. Last week, the company reported a rise in annual profits on the back of higher aluminium prices.
Rusal is the biggest aluminium producer outside of China and is responsible for about 7 per cent of global supply.
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