A man standing in front of a rack of canisters containing air samples from Cape Grim.

Dr Paul Fraser decanting a sample of air taken from Cape Grim in southern Tasmania.

Measuring the environmental impact of aluminium production

Flagship researchers are monitoring the amount of greenhouse gases produced by aluminium smelters.

  • 16 March 2006 | Updated 14 October 2011

One of the significant environmental consequences of aluminium production is the emission of perfluorcarbons (PFCs), powerful greenhouse gases which remain permanently in the atmosphere once released.

The challenge facing aluminium producers in responding to increased global demand is to reduce the environmental impact of aluminium production, including greenhouse gas emissions. To meet this challenge, emissions must be effectively monitored.

Current activities

The Light Metals Flagship, in partnership with the Bureau of Meteorology and the University of California, has installed a new instrument at the Bureau’s atmospheric monitoring station at Cape Grim, Tasmania, Australia, that continuously measures PFCs in the background atmosphere.

This project aims to monitor emissions from three south-east Australian aluminium smelters to obtain a direct estimate of current PFC emissions from Australian aluminium production.

Team Leader, Dr Paul Fraser, explains: ‘In south-west wind conditions, air samples collected at Cape Grim in north-west Tasmania are representative of the mid-latitude Southern Hemisphere global air mass in which global emissions of greenhouse gases can de detected and quantified.’

The instrument, which incorporates a gas chromatograph coupled to a mass spectrometer and a low temperature trapping system, is the first to continuously measure PFCs in the background atmosphere of the Southern Hemisphere and has been installed on the west coast of Tasmania as part of the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment.

Researchers are measuring local and global PFC levels and estimating PFC emission trends over recent decades to the present day.

‘We will use samples from the Cape Grim air archive, which dates from 1978 to the present, and Antarctic firn air [air trapped in the upper glacier, or ice firn] between 1930 and 2000, to analyse PFC trends in the Southern Hemisphere over the past 70 years,’ says Dr Fraser

‘The new technology provides much more accurate PFC measurements than any existing technology. Initial results have indicated a drop in Southern Hemisphere PFC growth rates over recent years, which indicate lower aluminium smelter PFC emissions due to efforts to introduce improved aluminium production management.’

Outcomes

Future plans include monitoring emissions from three south-east Australian aluminium smelters to obtain a direct estimate of current PFC emissions from Australian aluminium production.

The Light Metals Flagship is keen to collaborate with Australian aluminium producers to reduce uncertainties in current estimates of PFC emissions from this industry and to feed improved estimates into the Australian Greenhouse Office's process for estimating national greenhouse gas emissions.

Learn more about Environmental Monitoring & Analysis.