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Transforming the Recycling Life Cycle: How Scrap Aluminum Shapes Future Buildings

Anticipated Energy Savings of Nearly 90 Percent by Utilizing Entirely Post-Consumer Aluminum for Premium Building Components

A groundbreaking patent-pending technology has revolutionized the utilization of scrap aluminum in the circular economy. This innovative approach, developed at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, breathes new life into twisted aluminum mesh, battered bicycle frames, and discarded car parts by transforming them into essential building structures like door and window frames, facades, lighting fixtures, and decorative elements. The remarkable aspect is the conservation of almost all the energy typically expended in manufacturing new aluminum products.

While aluminum components are increasingly favored in construction for their strength-to-weight ratio, traditional mining and refining processes incur significant energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The International Aluminum Institute reports that producing one ton of primary aluminum releases an average of 17 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In a significant departure from conventional practices, PNNL’s Shear Assisted Processing and Extrusion Process (ShAPE™) has demonstrated through meticulous laboratory assessments the ability to convert 100 percent post-consumer aluminum scrap into extrusions that meet or surpass the stringent ASTM standards for strength and flexibility, particularly for the widely used building-grade alloys 6061 and 6063. This technological breakthrough not only fosters circularity in the aluminum scrap market but also diminishes reliance on imported primary aluminum, thereby reducing the substantial energy footprint associated with its production.

The circular economy just closed the loop on scrap aluminum, thanks to a new patent-pending technology developed at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Rather than processing mined aluminum, rigorous laboratory testing has shown that PNNL’s Shear Assisted Processing and Extrusion Process (ShAPE™) can transform 100 percent post-consumer scrap aluminum into usable extrusions that meet or exceed stringent ASTM standards for strength and flexibility for common building-grade alloys. (Video by Sara Levine and Eric Francavilla | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

“This advancement in the ShAPE technology, particularly in the realm of aluminum recycling for structural elements, presents a tremendous opportunity to decarbonize the construction sector,” emphasized PNNL Chief Scientist Scott Whalen, the driving force behind this research. “Our findings reveal that the inherent microstructures of the metal exhibit a higher tolerance to impurities than previously assumed, enabling us to tap further into the aluminum scrap market while upholding material performance.”

The latest iteration of the patented ShAPE™ technology has spurred entrepreneur Eric Donsky to establish a startup manufacturing venture aimed at deploying a ShAPE-based process across vertically integrated facilities. This initiative will facilitate the transformation of scrap aluminum into a range of low-carbon extruded parts tailored for the building and construction industry. By forging an exclusive partnership with PNNL, Atomic13 is poised to commercialize the technology within specified domains, with a focus on delivering custom extruded aluminum components for construction and consumer goods sectors, exclusively sourced from post-consumer aluminum scrap. The projected energy savings are anticipated to aid builders in achieving or surpassing the standards set by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for energy-efficient structures, among other advantages.

“The ShAPE technology presents a remarkable prospect for U.S. manufacturing and the enhancement of our critical infrastructure,” stated Atomic13 Founder Eric Donsky. “We firmly believe in the substantial environmental and commercial value of instilling circularity in the aluminum extrusion industry, thereby assisting the building and construction sector in significantly reducing the embodied carbon in their products. Through ShAPE technology, companies like Atomic13 can produce aluminum extrusions entirely derived from 100 percent post-consumer scrap, resulting in a 90% reduction in carbon emissions. Moreover, the cost-effectiveness stemming from low feedstock expenses translates into more affordable products for consumers. We eagerly anticipate further collaboration with PNNL engineers to advance this promising technology.”

Aluminum extrusions have long been integral to the construction landscape. What sets the ShAPE manufacturing process apart is its utilization of scrap aluminum bricks or rod-shaped billets, subjected to heat generated by intense shear forces to disintegrate impurities within the scrap aluminum into minute particles. This dispersion process ensures uniform distribution within the aluminum microstructure, effectively eradicating microscopic iron clusters that could induce microfractures in recycled aluminum goods produced through conventional methods. By obviating the need to dilute impurities in recycled aluminum with 25 to 40 percent newly mined aluminum before processing, ShAPE aluminum extrusion delivers substantial energy savings.

The PNNL team conducted comprehensive evaluations of the mechanical properties of rods, tubes, and irregular hollow structures under varying mechanical stress scenarios. Testing 540 distinct product conditions crafted from post-consumer scrap briquettes, including those with elevated iron content (ranging from 0.2 to 0.34 percent), all products exhibited performance meeting or exceeding ASTM standards for yield strength and ultimate tensile strength.

Fostering New Demand in the Scrap Aluminum Sector

As per the International Aluminum Organization, producing one metric ton of molten aluminum necessitates 16.6 megawatt hours of electricity. In 2022, the global aluminum industry churned out over 69,000 metric tons of primary aluminum, with half originating from China, a significant portion of which relies on coal-fired power for electricity generation, resulting in 17 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per ton of aluminum produced.

“The ShAPE manufacturing process stands out for its energy conservation and emission reduction on multiple fronts,” highlighted Whalen. “By eliminating the need for primary aluminum supplementation and bypassing the homogenization process—a heat treatment lasting 6 to 24 hours at approximately 500 °C before extrusion—we are significantly curbing energy consumption and emissions.”

Furthermore, the exclusion of newly mined aluminum not only slashes manufacturing costs but also broadens the market scope for what was conventionally deemed as lower-grade “twitch” aluminum scrap. This category encompasses a dynamic mix of manufacturing remnants and post-consumer items like beverage cans, house siding, window and door frames, step ladders, and various used equipment.

“Establishing a circular market that confers value to this twitch scrap opens up avenues for novel industrial applications in the construction sector, sporting goods manufacturing, automotive components, and framing solutions for burgeoning industries such as solar panel production,” noted Donsky.

Atomic13 is presently in the design phase of its inaugural commercial manufacturing line in collaboration with a prominent equipment manufacturer in the extrusion domain, while also scouting potential site locations in the Midwest and Southeast regions. The company is engaging with construction firms keen on sustainability and the decarbonization of building materials, with plans to commence order acceptance by early 2025.

This research initiative received backing from the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Vehicle Technologies Office. The acclaimed ShAPE technology has secured seven U.S. patents with an additional 34 patents pending. For licensing inquiries and further details, please reach out to ppp5.