Ecocentricity Blog: An Aluminum Smelter Far, Far Away

By: John A. Lanier
Aug 12, 2020 10:00 AM ET
Summary: 

Some producers of aluminum have developed an alternative form of electrolysis that produces only oxygen as a direct byproduct. It’s good news, and recently Apple decided to purchase this low carbon aluminum for use in their laptops.

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You know that moment, one that I think most of us have at least once in our lives, when you realize in a panic that your driver’s license or your passport is about to expire and you have to scramble to get it renewed in time? That’s how I’m feeling right now, but about my Star Wars fan card. I haven’t forced a Star Wars reference into a blog in a long time, so I fear Disney may revoke my fandom if I don’t remedy that immediately.

What do you think R2-D2 was made out of? I don’t mean the actual robot/costume/prop that was used to film the movies. I mean in the I-want-it-to-be-real-life galaxy far, far away. I have thoughts, so just plunk down your penny right there on the Mos Eisley Cantina bar and I’ll give them to you.

First, the specs. According to Wookieepedia (no, I’m not making this stuff up), R2 clocks in at 1.08 meters tall and 32 kilograms, which is a shade north of 70 pounds. That ain’t quite featherweight for droids, but you’ve got to remember that this little buddy comes chock-full of features. Beyond his basic internal circuitry and battery system, he has a buzz saw, an ascension cable, rocket boosters, and motorized all-terrain treads with a retractable third leg. There isn’t a lot of weight left over for his frame, so my guess is that his manufacturers opted for aluminum.

If I’m right, then Industrial Automaton (yes, Wookieepedia even has a name for R2’s manufacturer) likely figured out a better way to smelt aluminum than the way we do it on Earth. Here, we first mine bauxite, a form of sedimentary rock that is high in aluminum bonded to other elements, from the planet’s crust. The bauxite is processed into aluminum oxide, which is then melted with ridiculously high temperatures and charged with an electric current (a technique called electrolysis). Doing all of this causes the metallic aluminum to sink to the bottom of the molten solution, where it can be gathered and used to make all sorts of aluminum products. Unfortunately, a direct byproduct of this form of electrolysis is carbon dioxide (and that’s on top of the emissions that may come from creating the ridiculously high temperatures I mentioned).

Fortunately, some producers of aluminum have developed an alternative form of electrolysis that produces only oxygen as a direct byproduct. This form of virgin aluminum production can notably reduce the carbon footprint of the material (though admittedly, recycled aluminum is still the better, lower carbon option). It’s good news, and recently a little ol’ company named Apple decided to purchase this low carbon aluminum for use in their laptops. I read about this on Grist’s website, and here’s the link if you’d like to explore more. Hopefully Apple’s buy-in can help this processing technique scale, though as this article notes, it needs to scale in tandem with renewable electricity powering the smelting process.

If only we could somehow travel to Nubia and see where Industrial Automaton fabricated our good friend R2-D2. I bet they’ve had this figured out for ages. There...my Star Wars fan card is renewed for another year!

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Valerie Bennett
Ray C. Anderson Foundation
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