Recycled aluminium: a key enabler in the energy transition

Acceptance and use of recycled aluminium is a clear example of how circular economy thinking leads to emissions reductions throughout the supply chain.

William Beer
Tunley Environmental

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Article Summary

In today’s industrial landscape, there is a noticeable surge in the demand for low-carbon materials, significantly reshaping the supply chain of numerous industries and prompting a paradigm shift towards sustainability and environmental responsibility. This surge is compelling businesses to re-evaluate their sourcing, production, and distribution processes, seeking out environmentally sustainable alternatives.

Aluminium is becoming one of the world’s most recycled materials. The use of recycled aluminium, together with low-carbon virgin aluminium, is effectively decarbonising the whole supply chain. This article shows how end users are adapting and, in so doing, creating a demand for decarbonised products.

The aluminium industry faces challenges related to its substantial carbon emissions footprint and the need for sustainable production methods. Recycled aluminium stands out as a more environmentally friendly alternative due to its lower carbon footprint, by-passing the most energy-intensive steps in the production process. The industry’s shift towards clean, cost-competitive, and low-carbon aluminium production powered by renewable energy sources is essential for supporting the energy transition. The increased use of recycled aluminium also significantly reduces the environmental footprint associated with bauxite extraction and processing. Decarbonisation efforts across the aluminium value chain, including the use of renewable-generated electricity and carbon-free technologies, are critical for achieving sustainability goals.

The aluminium industry plays a vital role in decarbonisation more broadly, including solar photovoltaics (PVs) and electric vehicles (EVs), which in turn contribute to the increasing demand for aluminium.

Aluminium demand
Global aluminium demand is expected to grow (see Figure 1), with an estimated increase of 33.3 Mt from 86.2 Mt in 2020 to 119.5 Mt in 2030 (CRU International, 2022). This growth is anticipated to be primarily driven by the transportation, electrical, construction, and packaging sectors.

In the transport sector, the growing demand for EVs is forecast to increase demand for aluminium from 19.9 Mt in 2020 to 31.7 Mt in 2030.

Additionally, the electrical sector is forecast to witness a significant rise in demand, reaching 15.6 Mt in 2030, driven by the implementation of renewable energies and the expansion of power transmission and distribution capacity. However, in its report, CRU International highlights potential risks such as fluctuations in EV sales, battery metal prices, and the impact of environmental policies on aluminium demand. Overall, the report provides valuable insights into the evolving landscape of aluminium demand and the key sectors driving this transformation.

Aluminium recycling
The production of virgin aluminium involves extracting bauxite, refining it into alumina, and then electrolysing it to produce pure aluminium. In contrast, recycled aluminium is sourced from post-consumer and industrial waste.

Aluminium recycling is a vital process that significantly contributes to sustainability and resource conservation (see Figure 2). The recycling process begins with collecting aluminium scrap from various sources, including used beverage cans, automotive parts, construction materials, and consumer electronics. The collected scrap (see Figure 3) is then sorted, cleaned, and processed to remove contaminants such as paper, plastic, and other metals. Once the scrap is prepared, it undergoes melting in a furnace, where it is heated to high temperatures to liquefy the aluminium.

After melting, the molten aluminium is purified to remove any remaining impurities, resulting in high-quality recycled aluminium. This recycled aluminium can then be used to produce new products (see Figure 4).

The aluminium recycling process offers significant environmental benefits as it requires only a fraction of the energy needed for primary aluminium production, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. Additionally, recycling aluminium helps conserve natural resources and reduces landfill waste, making it a crucial component of the circular economy.

As the demand for sustainable and eco-friendly materials continues to grow, aluminium recycling plays a pivotal role in promoting environmental responsibility and mitigating the environmental impact of industrial production.

Transition to low-carbon aluminium
Hydro, formerly Norsk Hydro, is a Norwegian aluminium and renewable energy company with a global presence. The company’s primary focus is the production of aluminium, where it operates throughout the entire value chain, from bauxite extraction to the production of extruded and rolled aluminium products.

Hydro, formerly Norsk Hydro, is a Norwegian aluminium and renewable energy company with a global presence. The company’s primary focus is the production of aluminium, where it operates throughout the entire value chain, from bauxite extraction to the production of extruded and rolled aluminium products.

Hydro Circal 75R is a specific aluminium grade developed by Hydro, known for its excellent sustainability and high recycled content. This grade is widely used in the production of extruded and rolled products, catering to various industries such as construction, transportation, and packaging. Hydro Circal 75R underscores the company’s dedication to circular economy principles as it is manufactured with a minimum of 75% recycled post-consumer scrap, making it an environmentally conscious choice for customers seeking sustainable aluminium solutions.

Over the last five years, Optima, a provider of internal partition systems for commercial and public buildings, has made sustainability a core value of its business and has implemented several initiatives to reduce its environmental impact and enhance its social responsibility. One of the most significant changes has been transitioning from aluminium with a carbon footprint of 7 kgCO2e per kilogram to Hydro Circal 75R, which has a footprint of just 1.9 kgCO2e per kilogram, the lowest emission aluminium available on the market.


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