As David DeYoung, then a director of business technologies at Alcoa, walked into Apple’s Cupertino, Calif., headquarters in September 2015, he knew that the stakes were high. DeYoung led a group of engineers who’d spent decades pursuing the holy grail for the notoriously dirty aluminum industry: a way to smelt the metal without producing any direct carbon emissions. Apple Inc., which Harbor Intelligence analyst Jorge Vazquez estimates uses almost 15,000 metric tons of aluminum annually for its electronics gear, had invited DeYoung to explain a potentially revolutionary carbonless manufacturing process for aluminum that his group was developing.
Alcoa Inc. was on the verge of ending the DeYoung team’s years-long search. To make the tension even worse, moments before DeYoung stepped into a roundtable with Apple engineers, he received word Alcoa was splitting into two publicly traded companies—casting another cloud on his unit’s project. So Apple’s interest in reducing the carbon footprint of its metal casings looked to be key to saving the funding.
But it wasn’t until later in 2015 that the payoff from that meeting came, with help from an unexpected source. That’s when Vincent Christ, a manufacturing information technology expert from Rio Tinto Group Plc, flew to Cupertino for a similar visit. The London-based company, one of Alcoa’s biggest rivals, was also struggling to develop a way to produce aluminum through a process that would emit oxygen instead of carbon dioxide. While heading back to the airport after an hourslong confab with Apple engineers, Christ received a call. Apple had an idea: Rio Tinto and Alcoa were both close to the answer they were looking for, but neither company seemed able to do it on its own. So why not combine efforts?
“We had the engine, but we didn’t have the wheels, chassis, or body, and Rio brought that all to the party,” says DeYoung, who holds a Ph.D. from MIT. “[Apple] said, ‘You guys really ought to talk to Rio,’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, we have already.’ But then we said we’ll talk to them again, and Apple actually facilitated that second contact.”
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