ARENA injects $32.1m in Rio Tinto’s pilot hydrogen plant in Queensland

Image credit: Rio Tinto

The Federal Government has allocated $32.1 million to Rio Tinto through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to help the firm in establishing a hydrogen facility in Gladstone, Queensland. 

The project – which carries an overall value of $111.1m and will be co-developed alongside Sumitomo Corporation – is intended to demonstrate the use of hydrogen in the calcination process, with a 2.5MW electrolyser to be built at Rio’s Yarwun refinery, so that it can operate at times with a hydrogen burner.

The initiative, the first-of-its-kind deployment of hydrogen calcination in the world, aims to reduce emissions from alumina refining, which currently accounts for around three per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Sumitomo Corporation will own and operate the electrolyser at Rio Tinto’s Yarwun location, supplying hydrogen directly to the company. 

The electrolyser will have a capacity of more than 250 tonnes of hydrogen per year, ARENA revealed in a news release. 

Rio Tinto will put the hydrogen calciner through a series of tests under various operating conditions to ensure its compatibility and performance.

Calciners, which employ high temperatures to remove chemically bound water from alumina crystals, have traditionally used fossil fuels for process heat, accounting for around 30 per cent of alumina refining emissions.

If the initiative is successful, it will establish the viability of hydrogen calcination and open the road for its widespread implementation in other alumina refineries. 

The project, according to ARENA CEO Darren Miller, represents a critical advancement in the research and development of hydrogen calcination and the decarbonization of the alumina production process. 

“This world-first pilot looks to prove a promising technology for decarbonising one of our most emissions intensive industries,” Miller said. 

He added, “If this pilot project is successful, it could be a game changer for Australian alumina production, paving the way for deployment across the industry, and underscoring the importance of low-cost green hydrogen to decarbonise our largest industrial emitters.”

The demonstration comes on the heels of Rio Tinto’s successful feasibility study, which ARENA funded with a $580,000 grant in 2021.