Rio Tinto and BHP, along with Australian steelmaker BlueScope, have agreed to jointly investigate the development of the nation’s first ironmaking electric smelting furnace (ESF) pilot plant.

The trio signed a framework agreement to combine their expertise and resources to support the goal of decarbonising steel production.

The alliance aims to tap BHP and Rio Tinto’s knowledge of Pilbara iron ores and BlueScope’s operational experience in ESF technology.

It marks a concerted effort to reduce the carbon footprint of steelmaking, a process traditionally associated with high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The initiative seeks to demonstrate the viability of producing molten iron using renewable energy sources in conjunction with direct reduced iron (DRI) process.

If successfully implemented, this technology could pave the way for near-zero GHG emission-intensity steel production, particularly for operations dependent on Australian iron ore.

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By GlobalData

The parties involved will evaluate various Australian locations for the proposed pilot facility, considering factors such as infrastructure, workforce availability, industry access and supply chain partnerships.

These assessments will also consider the suitability of each site for conducting operational trials.

The pre-feasibility study for this ambitious project is set to conclude by the end of the year and, subject to approval, the pilot facility could commence operations as early as 2027.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore CEO Simon Trott said: “The carbon intensity of iron and steelmaking requires profound change to meet the needs of our planet and our climate objectives. We must find better ways to enable these materials to be made more sustainably through leveraging technology.”

“We firmly believe the best way to tackle a challenge of this scale is through collaboration with industry and importantly 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.”

Last month, Rio Tinto‘s Dampier Salt joint venture agreed to divest its Lake MacLeod salt and gypsum operation in Western Australia to Leichhardt Industrials Group.