Cornell to lead carbon-cutting effort in aluminum recycling

A new Cornell-led project aims to use carbon dioxide emissions and residue from aluminum recycling – a carbon-heavy process – to produce high value products.  

The two-year, $2.5 million project was announced in August by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management that supports research to create carbon management technologies and applications that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions and address the impact of climate change.

“Aluminum recycling is carbon intensive,” said Greeshma Gadikota, associate professor of engineering and the principal investigator of the project.  “We are developing chemical processes that can be coupled to recycling, so that the overall recycling process emits less carbon dioxide.”  

Making new aluminum initially takes a carbon footprint of more than four tons of carbon dioxide even in regions that use hydropower. In coal-powered areas, it takes  more than 20-tons of carbon dioxide (equivalent) to create one ton of aluminum, according to Climate Action, a group that assembles sustainability partnerships. 

In the U.S., the post-consumer scrap, secondary recycling market – thanks to collection, transportation, sorting and remelting – carries a carbon footprint of a half-ton of carbon dioxide per one ton of aluminum, according to the group.

The process of smelting recovered aluminum creates dross, a byproduct which contains impurities.

Cornell and the partner institutions will advance an energy- and material-efficient technology to recover calcium and magnesium carbonate from the by-product dross. Additionally, the group aims to claim other high-value metals and energy critical metals, which include nickel and cobalt by employing carbon dioxide emissions.  

Gadikota, a Croll Sesquicentennial Fellow and a faculty fellow with the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, is leading the project, called INSPIRE – short for “Integrated and Sustainable Pathways for CO2 Capture and Mineralization with Recovery of High Value Metals.”

Her co-principal investigators are T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering Practice at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Julien Leclaire, professor in supramolecular chemistry, Université Claude Bernard Lyon I, France; and David Heldebrant, chief scientist on the separations materials team at federal Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland Washington. The project’s industrial partners are Novelis Inc. and Nucor Corporation.

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Jeff Tyson