Aluminium for a sustainable futureFebruary 17, 2021
Abdulnasser bin Kalban, CEO of Emirates Global Aluminium (EGA), talks to The Energy Year about future growth drivers for the aluminium sector in light of the energy transition and how the company is targeting energy efficiency in its smelting operations. EGA operates aluminium smelters and an alumina refinery in the UAE and a bauxite mine in the Republic of Guinea.
How has EGA navigated the Covid-19 pandemic while keeping facilities up and running?
EGA is a vital industrial company and key driver of economic growth in both the UAE and Guinea, and a key global supplier of a metal that makes modern life possible. It has been our responsibility to maintain our operations throughout the pandemic.
Although hundreds of our people have been working at home, particularly in corporate roles, it is not possible to mine bauxite, generate electricity, refine alumina or smelt and cast aluminium remotely. So, thousands of our employees have been working onsite.
We have implemented extensive measures to keep our people safe. The 63 doctors, nurses and other medical staff in our onsite medical centres have been at the forefront of this effort. Key to our strategy has been onsite testing. We have conducted some 70,000 Covid-19 tests at EGA to date, making our testing programme one of the most extensive at any company in the country.
Meanwhile, we also reorganised all EGA residential areas and work sites to ensure our people were able to comfortably keep a safe distance both at and outside of work.
Of course, we also stepped up sanitisation, with routine deep-cleaning of our buses, offices, communal areas and operational sites.
I’m cautiously happy to say that EGA’s rate of Covid-19 infections has been much lower than that of the community as a whole for many months. We will maintain our focus on Covid-19 prevention until this scourge is over.
How would you describe today’s global and regional aluminium demand, and what do you see as future growth drivers for the industry?
Demand for aluminium is correlated with the health of the global economy, as aluminium is used in products and infrastructure that make modern life possible – everything from cars to planes and from smartphones to skyscrapers. This means demand, and prices, took a knock at the height of Covid-19. But as we near the end of 2020 the prospects are looking much brighter and prices have risen.
Longer term, the expectation is that demand for aluminium will continue to grow, as it plays such an important role in the transition to a more sustainable society. One example is the growth of renewable power, which cannot happen without significant increases in the use of base metals – chiefly, aluminium.
Aluminium is lightweight, strong and infinitely recyclable. It contributes to reduced energy costs and carbon emissions in dozens of applications, from passenger vehicles to aeroplanes, buildings, infrastructure systems and more. Our metal plays a key role now, and it will only grow in future.
To echo a November 2020 report from the World Economic Forum: “aluminium is an essential material for a sustainable future.”
Given that aluminium smelting requires significant quantities of electrical energy, has EGA taken any steps to reduce its energy consumption and emissions and, on the whole, become more sustainable?
This has been a key focus at EGA for decades. Sustainability is both good, and good for business. We were the first Middle East-headquartered company to join the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI). ASI is a global grouping of companies in the aluminium value chain and civil society, which provides an international consensus on what constitutes best practice in the production of aluminium and its use. We were also the first Middle East company to achieve a certification to the ASI’s Performance Standards, for our Al Taweelah smelting and casting operations.
Aluminium smelting is indeed energy intensive. We have our own power plants to generate the electricity we need. Our turbine fleet is amongst the most efficient in the region. We are improving this further. Our shareholders are investing in the construction of a new power block at EGA Jebel Ali, with the first use in the global aluminium industry of a Siemens Energy H-class gas turbine, a leading technology in efficient power generation.
We also focus on how efficiently we use energy. This reduces both our costs and our emissions. We have developed our own aluminium smelting technology for more than 25 years in the UAE, progressively improving the efficiency of the aluminium smelting process. Our latest technology is amongst the most efficient in the industry. We use our own technology in all our aluminium production lines, and in 2016 we exported it to Bahrain – the first time a UAE industrial company had licensed its core process technology internationally.
In 2019, our greenhouse gas emissions intensity was 38% lower than the industry average according to benchmark figures from the International Aluminium Institute, and our emissions of perfluorocarbons (a particular group of greenhouse gases emitted during the smelting process) were 91% lower. But there is much more to be done.
As the UAE approaches its 2021 Golden Jubilee, marking 100 years since its founding, what can EGA say of its role in the country’s economic diversification programme?
EGA was founded in 1979 as Dubai Aluminium by the late Sheikh Rashid to be a pioneer in economic diversification. Since that time, we have fulfilled Sheikh Rashid’s vision by taking the UAE from zero aluminium production to the fifth-largest aluminium-producing nation in the world.
Over the past 40 years, EGA has grown to become the nation’s largest industrial company outside oil and gas, with our “premium aluminium” today ranking as the second-largest made-in-the-UAE export. EGA’s business connects the UAE economy to the global market through our more than 400 customers in over 60 countries.
The aluminium sector generates activity accounting for 1.4% of the entire UAE economy and over 60,000 jobs – one in every 100 people working in the UAE is employed by the aluminium sector, its supply chain, or through spending of wages by the sector’s employees.
Over the next 50 years, one of our key goals is to build on this heritage and grow our contribution to the economy much further.
As we near the end of 2020, what does EGA see for itself and the industry looking ahead to 2021 and beyond?
Looking ahead to the coming decade and the next 50 years, the global Covid-19 pandemic is certain to not be the only global phenomenon to upend daily life as we know it. In the UAE and in other similarly advanced countries across the world, we are right now standing on the precipice of a Fourth Industrial Revolution that is destined to disrupt our understanding of “normal.”
Industry 4.0 will not only introduce new technologies that replace manual labour with machine manufacturing. It will also replace so-called “knowledge workers” with rational systems that can think critically, self-monitor and react to their surroundings.
In the years to come, EGA is poised to embrace new Industry 4.0 technologies to support the vision of the future announced in 2019 by their Highnesses, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed [the UAE’s prime minister and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, respectively], who together aspire to increase productivity of the UAE economy through investments in scientific research, technological innovation, advanced manufacturing and entrepreneurship.
Already, EGA has made significant investments in the development of big data, advanced analytics, automated-process controls and other Industry 4.0 technologies.
Not only does this promise to make us more efficient as a company, it will also further improve safety – designing out the risk of harm to people. That is quite something to aim for over the decades ahead.