RIO Tinto and Sumitomo Corporation are to build a new hydrogen plant at Gladstone as part of a program aimed at lowering carbon emissions from the process of refining alumina.

The $111.1-million Yarwun Hydrogen Calcination Pilot Demonstration Program got the green light after a funding boost of $32.1 million from the federal government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

The program is aimed at demonstrating the viability of using hydrogen in the calcination process, where hydrated alumina is heated to temperatures of up to 1000 degrees Celsius.

It involves construction of a hydrogen plant at the refinery and the retrofit of refinery processing equipment. If successful, the program could pave the way for adoption of the technology at scale globally.

Minister for climate change and energy Chris Bowen, said technology like this was critical for decarbonising heavy industry.

“The Albanese government’s announcement today is about backing the future of our jobs rich aluminium industry, which brings in around $14 billion in export revenue each year and employs more than 17,000 Australians,” Mr Bowen said.

“Australia is the world’s largest exporter of alumina and cutting emissions from our alumina refining will ensure this industry can continue to thrive in a decarbonising global economy – where 139 countries have net zero by 2050 commitments.

According to the Australian Aluminium Council, Australia produces 20.3 million tonnes of alumina at the six refineries in the country last year. This makes Australia the second-largest producer of the material in the world.

Australia exported 16 million tonnes of alumina in 2022, making it the largest exporter of the material.

According to a statement from Mr Bowen, alumina refining accounts for about 3% of Australia’s emissions and is an energy-intensive process, consuming more than twice the energy used by Tasmania.

The project will consist of construction of a 2.5-MW on-site electrolyser to supply hydrogen to the Yarwun refinery and a retrofit of one of Yarwun’s four calciners so it can operate at times with a hydrogen burner.

Rio Tinto owns and operates the Yarwun Alumina Refinery, which produces 2.9 million tonnes of alumina per year. It is exported to Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific region.

The trial is expected to produce the equivalent of about 6000 tonnes of alumina per year while reducing Yarwun’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 3000 tonnes per year, according to Rio Tinto.

Converting the entire plant to green hydrogen could reduce emissions by 500,000 tonnes per year, which is the equivalent of taking about 109,000 internal combustion engine cars off the road.

Construction on the Yarwun Hydrogen Calcination Pilot Demonstration Program will start next year. The hydrogen plant and calciner are expected to be in operation by 2025.

Rio Tinto aluminium Pacific operations managing director Armando Torres said: “This pilot plant is an important step in testing whether hydrogen can replace natural gas in Queensland alumina refineries”.