Nov 30, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Exclusive: Bill Gates-backed venture fund targets decarbonizing aluminum

Direct CO2 intensity of aluminum production needed to reach net zero emissions by 2050
Data: IEA; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

The need to decarbonize heavy industries such as steel, aluminum and cement manufacturing is taking on new urgency as policymakers and financiers search for ways to speed up the transition to a low carbon future.

Driving the news: On the aluminum front, Sortera Alloys, a company that seeks to achieve 100% reuse of aluminum waste from end-of-life products, announced $10 million in funding from Bill Gates-affiliated Breakthrough Energy Ventures on Tuesday.

Why it matters: The new investment signals the importance of reducing the energy intensity of making aluminum, which is in high demand from automakers seeking lightweight materials for new electric vehicles.

  • The new funding adds to previous backing the company received from the Energy Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and VC firm Chrysalix.

The big picture: Meeting the global climate goals reinforced at the COP26 summit in Glasgow earlier this month requires a Herculean effort to decarbonize vast swaths of the global economy.

Details: According to the International Energy Agency, aluminum manufacturing is not on track to meet the energy intensity reductions needed for its net zero scenario.

  • In the past few years, the direct carbon intensity of aluminum production stayed relatively flat, but it needs to drop by 3% per year from now through 2030, the IEA stated in its recent report.
  • This is in part because of how energy intensive producing aluminum is, as well as a lack of breakthroughs and investments in recycling, the IEA noted.

Context: Sortera uses artificial intelligence at its Fort Wayne, Indiana, pilot facility to analyze photos of scrap metal in order to categorize every piece and ensure its automated machines utilize them efficiently and effectively.

  • The company is targeting the $10 billion sorted aluminum alloy feedstock market, according to company founder and president Nalin Kumar.
  • Its pilot plant is already shipping trial materials, which are intended for use in cars, construction and aircraft parts. Some of its products can currently only be made via primary aluminum production, which emits more carbon dioxide compared to recycling.
  • In an interview with Axios, Kumar said his broad vision is to contribute to a circular economy in which the company would take in scrap metal from cars and put all of it to use, using artificial intelligence-aided sorting and processing.
  • The company would then ship back products to the same car manufacturers, so Ford vehicles, for example, that reach their end-of-life would contribute components to new Ford cars and trucks.

What they're saying: “The auto industry, in particular, should be very excited about Sortera's ability to deliver high purity recycled materials without the cost and negative impact of producing virgin metal feed stocks,” said Carmichael Roberts of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, in a statement.

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