Aluminium is recyclable but it requires lots of power to produce ©Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images
Aluminium is recyclable but it requires lots of power to produce ©Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images

Global focus on… aluminium

6 December 2019

Despite its green status, aluminium is very carbon-intensive to produce, a paradox which could lead to industry divergence

Abundant element
Aluminium (or aluminum in the US and Canada) is a silvery-white, soft, light and non-magnetic material. By mass, it is our most abundant metallic element, making up about 8% of the Earth’s crust. It is also strong, flexible and corrosion-resistant.

Precious rocks
Aluminium never occurs in metallic form in nature, but its compounds are present in almost all rocks, vegetation and animals. Many precious stones including sapphire – used in bullet-proof glass, aeroplane windows and smartphone screens – are actually aluminium minerals in crystal form.

Pollution creator
Aluminium is recyclable – good for the planet. But it requires a load of power to produce – bad for the planet. Its production accounts for around 4% of carbon emissions globally, making it the most polluting metal on a per-tonne basis. 

Clean market trading
Assuming that climate pressure will revolutionise the aluminium industry by splitting it in two, commodity trader Trafigura Group has set up a green-aluminium trading desk. 

Molten metal
Aluminium was first introduced to the public at the 1855 Paris Exposition. But it was expensive and difficult to make. Modern production began in 1886, when electric power became cheaper and more plentiful.

What goes around…
Nearly 75% of all aluminium ever produced is still in use. It can be reprocessed endlessly without loss of quality, commanding high value on the secondary market.

Symbol of progress
The International Aluminium Institute (IAI) estimates there are 400m tonnes of aluminium being used in infrastructure, transport and domestically. Alloys are also widely used.

Don’t sweat it
We each consume about 7-9mg of aluminium daily through food. Beef, poultry, eggs and fruit have 1mg or less per kg. Aluminium salts are the active ingredient in anti-perspirants, where it can prevent toxins from being expelled and block lymph nodes. Absorption via the skin has been linked to breast cancer.

What they say

“If the aluminium sector was a country, it would be larger than Germany in terms of its emissions. We have got to face up to our responsibility.”
Greg Barker, chairman of En+ Group International PJSC (holding company for aluminium producer Rusal)

“Five years ago there was very little discussion or care about the power source of the aluminium smelter. Today it is becoming very loud and very relevant.”
Mark Hansen, CEO at metals trader Concord Resources

“The Australian aluminium sector is crawling through a dark tunnel… There’s no turning back, but there is light ahead – cheap, clean power – if only the sector can get to the end of the tunnel before it’s too late.”
Simon Holmes à Court, Senior adviser, Climate and Energy College, Melbourne University

Since reaching $2,500 a tonne in 2018, aluminium prices on the London Metal Exchange have fallen to around $1,800 per tonne. Consultancy firm CRU estimates 4.4m tonnes of aluminium smelting capacity will be lossmaking in the fourth quarter of 2019. Some producers, including Rusal and Rio Tinto Group, run smelters using hydropower to reduce environmental impact. Rio has tried to push the advantage, and has deals with Nespresso and Apple linked to the sustainability of its metal. In Australia, however, Rio says its three coal-powered aluminium smelters, which employ more than 2,600 workers, are not sustainable at the current low prices caused by a flood of cheap supply from Asia. Greener producers also face the challenges of sagging prices and demand for the metal, with buyers reluctant to pay more while the traditional market is overstocked.

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