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The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Western Australian Clean Energy Future Fund (CEFF) have provided aluminium major with $7.7-million of funding to conduct pilot trials on a new carbon reduction technology that supports Alcoa’s Refinery of the Future initiative.

ARENA has provided Alcoa with A$8.6-million in funding while the CEFF has provided A$1.7-million in funding.

Alcoa said that calcination is the final stage in the alumina refining process and uses fossil fuels, primarily natural gas, to heat alumina hydrate crystals. Electric calcination, when powered with renewable energy, has the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, electrification of calciners would allow significant amounts of residual energy, currently lost in the atmosphere as steam, to be captured and reused, saving water and negating the need for stacks to vent that steam.

“We are the lowest carbon intensity alumina producer in the world, and we have a technology roadmap of future-oriented research and development projects with the goal to reduce our footprint even further,” said Alcoa’s VP for continuous improvement, Eugenio Azevedo.

“With this support from Australian governments, we are working on our vision to reinvent the aluminum industry for a sustainable future, which includes advancing projects of global significance for the aluminum industry and its customers.”

While the application of electric calcination is still in the research and development phase, the technologies that support the process are proven. It is one of two research and development projects included in Alcoa’s Refinery of the Future, which intends to unlock decarbonization at scale by delivering a cost-competitive refinery that will eliminate fossil fuels, as well as reduce freshwater use, and minimize and ultimately eliminate new bauxite residue deposits.

Alcoa said that the Australian grants complemented ARENA’s funding support announced last year, for the Mechanical Vapor Recompression (MVR) initiative, another technology that would use renewable energy to recycle low-pressure steam in alumina refining to generate process heat.

When combined with a decarbonised grid, MVR and electric calcination could reduce a refinery’s carbon emissions by about 98% and reduce fresh water use by up to 70%.

The pilot project for electric calcination will include two stages. The first stage will run until the end of 2023 and will involve the study, selection, engineering and testing of technologies.

Subject to satisfactory completion of the first stage, the second portion of the project will begin in the first quarter of 2024 and continue into mid-2026 with detailed design, construction and pilot testing of this emerging technology at Alcoa’s Pinjarra refinery in Western Australia.