Rio Tinto and Sumitomo Partner to Trial Lower-Carbon Alumina Refining

Anglo-Australian metals and mining corporation Rio Tinto and Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation announced they will build a first-of-a-kind hydrogen plant in Gladstone, Queensland, as part of a A$111.1 million program aimed at lowering carbon emissions from the alumina refining process.

The Yarwun Hydrogen Calcination Pilot Demonstration Program received the green light after a A$32.1 million co-funding boost from the federal government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

The program is aimed at demonstrating the viability of using hydrogen in the calcination process, where hydrated alumina is heated to temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Celsius.

It involves the construction of a hydrogen plant at the refinery and the retrofit of refinery processing equipment. If successful, the program could pave the way for the adoption of the technology at scale globally.

Rio Tinto Aluminium Pacific Operations Managing Director Armando Torres said: “This pilot plant is an important step in testing whether hydrogen can replace natural gas in Queensland alumina refineries.”

“At Rio Tinto, we have put the energy transition at the heart of our business strategy, and this is one of the ways we’re working towards decarbonising our operations.

Construction Will Start in 2024

The project will consist of the construction of a 2.5MW on-site electrolyser to supply hydrogen to the Yarwun refinery and a retrofit of one of Yarwun’s four calciners so it can operate at times with a hydrogen burner.

The trial is expected to produce the equivalent of about 6,000 tonnes of alumina per year while reducing Yarwun’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 3,000 tonnes per year.

Converting the entire plant to green hydrogen could reduce emissions by 500,000 tonnes per year, equivalent to taking about 109,000 internal combustion engine cars off the road.

The pilot plant follows the success of a A$1.2 million feasibility study co-funded by Rio Tinto and ARENA that was announced in 2021.

Sumitomo Corporation will own and operate the electrolyser at Yarwun site and supply the hydrogen to Rio Tinto directly. The electrolyser will have a production capacity of more than 250 tonnes of hydrogen annually.

Construction will start in 2024. The hydrogen plant and calciner are expected to be in operation by 2025.