A century-old European metals company has started construction on a €300 million ($316 million) facility that will constitute the largest single German investment in Georgia and further the state’s vision of attracting the full electric-vehicle supply chain.
Aurubis AG held a groundbreaking ceremony June 17 in Augusta, where its new state-of-the-art plant will recycle up to 90,000 tons of circuit boards, cables and electronics into blister copper and other metals that will be incorporated into products including EV batteries, wiring for charging stations and more.
The plant won’t open until 2024, but that’s been “fast-tracked” given the extensive site engineering and technical preparations that will be made for a facility set to employ 120 people, CEO Roland Harings told Global Atlanta in an interview.
Aurubis, he said, will be the first in the market with the high-tech gear needed to profitably repurpose copper in the U.S., a pioneering stance that wouldn’t have made economic sense just a few years ago.
“From an Aurubis perspective, it’s known technology and equipment that we are putting for the first time in the U.S market,” Mr. Harings said. “To our surprise when I joined three years ago, we didn’t see any company with these capabilities.”
A few trends have made the change possible: China cut off imports of many scrap materials in its bid to move up the value chain, leaving ample supply of primary material available in the U.S.
Aurubis was already buying copper, tin, nickel, gold, silver and some 20 metals from pre-processors in the U.S. to be sent to six smelters in Germany, Spain, Belgium and Bulgaria, but then noticed a “structural, geopolitical shift” toward the prioritization of the transatlantic relationship at a time of stressed supply chains, Mr. Harings said.
This also happened as EVs, which utilize three times as much copper as internal-combustion engine cars, started to hit their stride in the U.S. market, with most major brands announcing long-term electrification plans.
Indeed, Georgia has seen more than $10 billion in combined investment announced across two EV plants from Rivian and Hyundai, on top of the $2.6 billion first phase of the SK Battery plant in Commerce, Ga.
From its new home in Augusta, Aurubis will be less than two hours from each.
“Now is the right time to join the forces and bring his industry-leading recycling technology to the United States,” Mr. Harings said. “We believe that the world will become, with decarbonization, much more electrical and hence will need much more copper.”
Beyond that Aurubis also aims be the gold (copper?) standard in its own environmental initiatives to help achieve a level of circularity in the metals supply chain that appeals to its environmentally conscious customers.
“We operate the most sustainable network of smelters in the world,” Mr. Harings said.
Already, its European facilities operate on a zero-waste basis. The Aurubis pyro-metallurgy process renders more than 1 million tons of materials into usable products or raw materials, Mr. Harings said.
In fact, Aurubis hopes its entry into the U.S. will spur more investment in pre-processing plants once other players see a path to profit. Some 6 million tons of metal-containing materials are thrown away in the U.S. each year.
“It’s really still the case that material from our point with of view with attractive content of metal is going to the landfill because the key processing capacities have not been invested,” Mr. Harings said. “If there is no off-taker, no one is able to offer the necessary processing.”
That sense of responsibility also carries over to Aurubis’s presence in the communities where its smelters operate.
The flagship plant in Hamburg, where the company is based, is just a few miles away from city hall, he said.
“Our smelter is running 365 days, 24/7 — you cannot see if our plant is running or not,” Mr. Harings said, noting that no smoke or smell is emitted from the plant, which offers full transparency to the community and also pays workers well so that they stick around for the long haul. Those same principles will travel to the Augusta facility, he added.
Aurubis aims to provide that society doesn’t have to choose between its industrial needs and its goals on sustainability and climate.
“I have toured a lot of facilities around the world. I have never been to a metals company that was as sustainably focused and as green as Aurubis, so if you are a global company that is looking to your carbon footprint, Aurubis is the company I would point you to,” Georgia Department of Economic Development Commissioner Pat Wilson said in a video about the facility on the Aurubis website.
Mr. Wilson, Gov. Brian Kemp and officials from Augusta and Richmond County joined Aurubis leaders for the June 17 groundbreaking, the latest demonstration of the strong welcome that helped persuade officials to pick Georgia.
For his part, Mr. Harings knew Georgia well, having spent nearly 10 years with Atlanta-based aluminum giant Novelis, including a stint as vice president heading up its growing global automotive business. Mr. Harings worked on the deal that saw Novelis supplying aluminum for the Ford F-150 pickup and built up the company’s business in China.
All to say he knew Atlanta’s airport well and had visited the Novelis innovation center in Kennesaw, but Georgia still had to beat out nine other shortlisted destinations across four Southeastern states for the Aurubis investment. Once three finalist sites were chosen, Augusta stood out for availability of electricity and natural gas, the cultivation of young talent and its proximity to the port of Savannah for exports of some materials to Europe, Mr. Harings said.
But the hospitality the company felt in Georgia also played a major role, he said.
“I really felt at home there already on day one,” he added. “All these things have just been confirmed.”