Miners are considering new ways to make the dirt they dig up green.
Across the U.S. border in Quebec, a research facility will fine-tune a technology that its owners—Alcoa Corp. and Rio Tinto PLC—believe could turn aluminum smelters carbon-free for the first time. Another initiative under way in Sweden could see hydrogen replace coking coal in manufacturing steel.
Miners have long seen investing in technology as a way to bring costs down and protect profits during swings in the global economy. But a new force for change has recently emerged: customers such as Apple Inc. and Audi AG that see a marketing advantage in ensuring their products are cleaner and greener than before.
Nestlé SA’s coffee brand Nespresso, for example, wants to source all the aluminum for its capsules from sustainably managed operations by 2020, which includes strict limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. Audi introduced sustainability ratings for suppliers a year ago and said that was becoming just as important in determining its purchases as cost and quality.
“You want your green iPhone, not your brown iPhone,” said John O’Brien, a clean-technology specialist at Deloitte in Australia. Alcoa had spent nearly a decade at a site near Pittsburgh testing technology that would release oxygen instead of carbon dioxide during the smelting process when it was approached by Apple. Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple liked the technology’s potential but worried how long it would take to become commercially viable.
“An iMac has more than half a pound of aluminum in it, so they are really interested in supporting advancement of technologies that allow them to reduce the footprint of their product,” said Vincent Christ, chief executive of the Rio Tinto and Alcoa joint venture, called Elysis.
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