The Greening of Aluminum
DOE Awards ENG Spinoff $1M for Cleaner, Lower Cost Production
By Mark Dwortzan
Ending up in everything from soda cans to bicycles to baseball bats, aluminum is the world’s second most commonly used metal after iron. While the global market for aluminum is estimated at $100 billion and growing, its production consumes a lot of energy, pollutes the air, and is a major source of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to global climate change. To overcome these drawbacks, Infinium, a Natick-based company spun off from Professor Uday Pal’s (ME, MSE) lab, has demonstrated an early-stage aluminum production method that eliminates carbon dioxide and other emissions, and requires half the energy of conventional approaches at far less cost.
Recognizing the method’s potential to transform the aluminum production industry, the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) has awarded Infinium $1 million to develop and commercialize the process. The grant is part of a nationwide lineup of 33 new ARPA-E-funded projects focused on advanced lightweight metals. A matching grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center will supplement the ARPA-E funding.
The conventional method, which uses carbon electrodes to electrochemically separate aluminum from aluminum oxide, is an energy-intensive process that produces substantial carbon dioxide emissions. Infinium’s new approach uses solid oxide membrane (SOM) electrolysis—a low-cost, energy-efficient, one-step method that Pal has developed over the past 15 years—to separate pure metals from their oxides. This carbon-free electrolytic smelting technology promises to decrease energy consumption while also eliminating carbon and other environmentally harmful emissions.
“Over the past decade, we’ve developed and applied our patented SOM electrolysis technology to produce magnesium, titanium, silicon and other energy-intensive metals from their oxides with minimum environmental impact and at low cost,” said Pal, who will contribute to the project as a subcontractor. “We now look forward to using this technology to bring these benefits to the production of aluminum, where we believe we can make a big impact.”