Rio Tinto, Sumitomo to Build Lower-Carbon Hydrogen Pilot Plant

by | Jul 13, 2023

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Current hydrogen production is responsible for around 830 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. Modern Hydrogen, a clean energy company with a goal to make energy cleaner and cheaper, has raised $32.8 million through a Series B-2 funding round to accelerate the decarbonization of gas into clean hydrogen.

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Rio Tinto and Sumitomo Corporation are joining together to build a hydrogen plant in Australia that aims to lower carbon emissions from the alumina refining process.

The plant will be built in Gladstone, Queensland, where the Yarwun alumina refinery is located. The refinery began construction in 2002, and it produces nearly 3 million metric tons of alumina per year, exported to customers in Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific region. 

The new hydrogen plant is part of a $76.5 million program targeting lower carbon emissions in alumina refining. Known as the Yarwun Hydrogen Calcination Pilot Demonstration Program, Rio Tinto and Sumitomo are moving forward with the hydrogen plant after receiving $22.2 million in co-funding from the federal government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

The program includes construction of a 2.5 megawatt on-site electrolyser to supply hydrogen to the Yarwun refinery and a retrofit of one of Yarwun’s four calciners, which will enable it to operate at times with a hydrogen burner. The aim is to demonstrate the viability of using hydrogen in the calcification process, where hydrated alumina is heated to temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Celsius. The pilot program has the potential to scale globally if successful. The electrolyser will have a production capacity of more than 250 metric tons of hydrogen annually.

The companies anticipate the pilot will produce about 6,000 metric tons of alumina per year and reduce carbon dioxide emissions at Yarwun by about 3,000 metric tons per year. If the entire plant were converted to green hydrogen, emissions reductions could reach 500,000 metric tons per year – the equivalent of taking about 109,000 internal combustion engine cars off the road, the companies said.

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

In the partnership, Sumitomo Corporation will own and operate the electrolyser at Yarwun site and supply the hydrogen to Rio Tinto directly. Sumitomo is a  Fortune 500 global trading and business investment company based in Japan. Rio Tinto is one of the world’s largest mining companies.

Construction on the hydrogen plant is expected to begin in 2024, with operations beginning in 2025.

The news comes just after Rio Tinto announced its plans to expand investments in copper mining in Utah. The mining giant has been exploring ways to reduce its emissions for several years, including a carbon capture site last year.

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