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Australia’s two biggest iron-ore producers and its biggest steelmaker have announced a partnership to accelerate the decarbonisation of steelmaking by agreeing to jointly investigate the development of the country’s first ironmaking electric smelting furnace (ESF) pilot plant.

Rio Tinto, BHP and BlueScope on Friday announced a new framework agreement for the pilot facility, which would seek to demonstrate that production of molten iron from Pilbara ores was feasible using renewable power, combined with direct reduced iron (DRI) process technology.

Should the pilot be successful, it could open a pathway to near-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emission-intensity operations for steelmakers that rely on Australian iron-ore to meet global steel demand.

Technology pathways compatible with renewable energy and scalable to the order of hundreds of millions of tonnes of steel production would be a major step forward in setting up Pilbara ores, and the world, for a low GHG-emission future,” said incoming BHP Western Australia Iron Ore asset president Tim Day.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore CE Simon Trott added that the best way to tackle a challenge of scale was through collaboration.

“This new agreement will leverage the more than two years of work we have already completed with BlueScope on this technology. This partnership will benefit from Rio Tinto’s and BHP’s unrivalled experience of Pilbara ores as well as the technical steelmaking capability and unique operating knowledge of BlueScope,” he noted.

The parties will assess several locations in Australia for the proposed pilot facility, and will consider factors such as supporting infrastructure, available workforce, access to target industry and supply chain partners, and suitability for operational trials.

The prefeasibility study work programme is expected to conclude at year-end. If approved, the pilot facility could be commissioned as early as 2027.

BlueScope, for its part, stated that it had a clear vision to be a vibrant, modern and sustainable steel manufacturer.

“We believe DRI is the most prospective technology to decarbonise our Australian business, and the development of ESF technology is key to unlocking Australia’s unique advantages in this decarbonisation journey – and, more importantly, has the potential for wider adaptation across the global steel industry. We believe that this collaboration where we can contribute BlueScope’s unique experience in operating an ESF will be key to cracking the code for Pilbara ores in low emission-intensity ironmaking,” said BlueScope CEO Tania Archibald