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Rio Tinto and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) have partnered to investigate processing with hydrogen instead of natural gas at the Yarwun alumina refinery in Gladstone, Queensland.

Using a $579,786 grant from the federal government – which runs ARENA – the project will initiate a trial phase with an aim to reduce emissions across the aluminium supply chain.

ARENA chief executive officer Darren Miller said this presented a step-change opportunity in aluminium processing.

“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,” Miller said.

“Exploring these new clean-energy technologies and methods is a crucial step towards producing green aluminium.”

With five bauxite mines, four alumina refineries and 14 aluminium refineries around the world, Rio Tinto plays a large role in the global aluminium industry.

In turn, the mining company can have a noticeable impact on the future of ‘green aluminium’.

Rio Tinto acting managing director for Pacific operations aluminium, Daniel van der Westhuizen, recognised the global impact projects like this could have on aluminium’s carbon emissions.

“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,” van der Westhuizen said.

“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.”

The project will involve an initial engineering and design study to define the construction and operational requirements at Yarwun.

The second stage will see a lab-scale reactor simulate the calcination process at the Bundoora Technical Development Centre, in Victoria.

Federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor underlined the importance of the aluminium industry.

“The aluminium industry is a valuable sector of our economy, both in terms of export earnings and as an employer of more than 22,000 Australians,” Taylor said.

“It is our sixth largest export by value, earning $12.7 billion in 2019-20. Australia is also the world’s largest exporter of alumina and accounts for around 15 per cent of global refining capacity.

“Securing the future of industries like this is essential for our long-term economic prosperity.”