The aluminium industry has come a long way from the Hall-Heroult process using enormous electric power in 1866 to building smelters next to water cascades to industry leaders making state-of-the-art smelters running clean energy ways. It strives to bring us a step closer to achieving the world’s net-zero target in 2050.
Aluminium-in-use, for a climate-neutral world:
Within two centuries since its discovery in 1825, these remarkable developments have increased the industry’s environmental and economic efficiency, making Aluminium the most popular structural material globally. Interestingly 75% of the Aluminium ever produced is still in use and recycling Aluminium takes only 5% of the energy required to produce the same quantity of virgin Aluminium. It makes Aluminium-in-use capable of creating a climate-neutral world by playing a significant role in supporting sustainable development goals.
As it stands, the aluminium industry as a whole is responsible for more than 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2 emission per year – around 2 per cent of the global anthropogenic emissions. The yearning vision is to change the dynamics of the industry on a much broader scale. The aluminium production, being highly energy-intensive, requires efforts on multiple fronts to address the imminent climate challenge collaboratively.
Steps towards green economy:
The decarbonisation of energy generation transitioning to an all-renewable energy system, the development of a non-carbon anode, and recycling of aluminium scrap, which requires just 5 per cent of the energy needed to produce it, could be some of the foremost steps necessary to follow up on the required measures proactively.
It goes without saying that industrial growth is not possible without Aluminium. As the second most-used metal in the world by mass, it is so integral to the vital construction, transport, and power industries that for the first time, amid growing demand for ethical and low-carbon products, the London Metal Exchange, the world’s largest market for industrial metals, launched a platform to trade low-carbon Aluminium.
Decarbonisation of the aluminium industry:
The type of source of power available to aluminium smelters worldwide is significant in its ability to decarbonise the industry. As per the 2020 WEF report on Aluminium for Climate, around one-third of the aluminium industry runs on grid power, while two-thirds use captive power sources, including coal-fired power plants, increasing emissions across the sector. Teetering on the edge of a power crisis, India, a country facing a shortage of coal due to a sharp uptick in power demand, shows how it has devoured the once abundant fossil fuel to keep its economic engine cranking.
The demand for Aluminium is expected to grow by more than 50 per cent by 2050. It is due to several factors such as its role in building a prosperous, sustainable economy by pushing the electric vehicle industry to the fore, construction of conventional and renewable technologies, and more. If timely action is not taken, the growing demand will lead to a rise in sectoral carbon emissions of around 30 per cent, a figure detrimental to earth.
While hydro, solar and geothermal powers are the most-used renewable sources for aluminium production, its dependency on proximity to geological features limits its growth. This calls for utility-scale Carbon capture, utilisation, and storage, or CCUS solutions, which capture and sequester emissions in durable products or deposit them into long-term storage units. This technology is expected to play a significant role in the decarbonisation of the aluminium industry in the nearest future. Molten salt, experts believe, can act as large-scale thermal storage allowing for the integration of renewable energy by ensuring uninterrupted supply. Also, an improved end-of-life scrap collection & its production and further development of new technologies by funding R&D and adopting mandatory CO2 emissions reduction policies will help manufacturers meet the increasing demand for low-carbon Aluminium.
To take a step forward, across the value chain, aluminium players, consumers, and suppliers, through collaborative research and development, should work in tandem with energy providers to support the transition to renewable and low-carbon electricity for industry-wide benefits.
The bottom line:
While hydropower may work for some, solar, wind, CCUS solutions, and salt storage work for others. It is crucial, despite the headwinds, to keep paving the path to decarbonisation. If there was ever a need to step up and take the lead, it is now. As Aluminium remains an integral catalyst for the future of a net-zero economy, it will be the boldest among us who will transform the industry for the betterment of the coming generation.