Rio Tinto and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) are collaborating to determine whether hydrogen may be used in place of natural gas in alumina refineries in order to minimize emissions.

Rio Tinto will perform a $1.2 million feasibility study, co-funded by ARENA with a $580,000 grant, into the viability of using clean hydrogen in place of natural gas in the refining process at the Yarwun aumina refinery in Gladstone.

The study will be conducted at Rio Tinto’s Bundoora Technical Development Centre in Melbourne, where the company’s in-house development expertise has been expanded to incorporate hydrogen.

ARENA CEO Darren Miller said “If we can replace fossil fuels with clean hydrogen in the refining process for alumina, this will reduce emissions in the energy and emissions intensive refining stage of the aluminium supply chain. Exploring these new clean energy technologies and methods is a crucial step towards producing green aluminium.

“This study will investigate a potential technology that can contribute to the decarbonisation of the Australian alumina industry. If successful, the technical and commercial lessons from Rio Tinto’s study could lead to the implementation of hydrogen calcination technology, not only in Australia, but also internationally.”

Rio Tinto Aluminium Pacific Operations acting managing director Daniel van der Westhuizen said “We see the ARENA and Rio Tinto-funded study as a step towards reducing refinery emissions and one that has the potential to play an important part in Rio Tinto’s commitment to decarbonisation.

“We’re investing in work that needs to be done, not only to decarbonise one of our sites, but also to help provide a lower-emissions pathway for Rio Tinto and the global aluminium industry.

“We recognise we are on a long road towards reducing emissions across our operations and there is clearly more work to be done. But projects such as this are an important part of helping us get there.”

The study is divided into two work packages:

  • Conducting a preliminary engineering and design research to ascertain the building and operating requirements of a possible demonstration project at the Yarwun alumina refinery.
  • Simulating the calcination process at the Bundoora Technical Development Centre using a laboratory scale reactor.

    Once completed, the study will provide insight into the viability of a possible demonstration project. Rio Tinto has filed patents for the technique of hydrogen calcination.

Rio Tinto’s goal for 2050 is to achieve net zero emissions across all of its businesses. The corporation as a whole is aiming for a 15% reduction in absolute emissions and a 30% decrease in emissions intensity by 2030, compared to a 2018 baseline.

Nedim Husomanovic

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