The two largest iron ore producers in the country have partnered with BlueScope to investigate the development of the first ironmaking electric smelting furnace (ESF) pilot plant.

Under a new framework agreement, Rio Tinto, BHP and BlueScope will consolidate the work each party has completed to date, leveraging both BHP’s and Rio Tinto’s knowledge of Pilbara iron ores with BlueScope’s operating experience in ESF technology in an effort to accelerate the decarbonisation of steelmaking. 

The collaboration provides a platform to develop and potentially invest in a pilot facility and aims to demonstrate that production of molten iron from Pilbara ores is feasible using renewable power when combined with Direct Reduced Iron (DRI) process technology. 

If successful, it could help open a potential pathway to near zero greenhouse gas emission intensity operations for steelmakers that rely on Australian iron ore to meet global steel demand.

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

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

Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore Chief Executive, 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.”

Mr Trott said the partnership will benefit from Rio Tinto’s and BHP’s experience of Pilbara ores as well as the technical steelmaking capability and unique operating knowledge of BlueScope. 

“We are excited to add this partnership to the suite of projects we have underway with our customers and suppliers to find better ways to accelerate their efforts to meet their decarbonisation targets.”

Incoming BHP Western Australia Iron Ore (WAIO) Asset President, Tim Day, said, “We are thrilled to partner with Rio Tinto and BlueScope to progress what we see as a potential breakthrough in reducing carbon emissions from steel production.”

Mr Day said such collaborations are important for the success of these technologies and build on BHP’s work on blast furnace abatement projects, and its ongoing research and development projects with leading steelmakers, research institutes and technology providers around the world.

“Combining our expertise, we hope to help fast track near zero emission intensity pathways for steelmakers using Pilbara ores.”

Mr Day said that 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 greenhouse gas emission future.

BlueScope’s Chief Executive Australia, Tania Archibald, said, “We have a clear vision for BlueScope in Australia as a vibrant, modern and sustainable manufacturer with a clear role to play in enabling Australia’s energy transition.”

Ms Archibald said that building a pathway to low emission-intensity iron and steelmaking in Australia is a key priority for Bluescope. 

“We’re excited to be partnering with Rio Tinto and BHP to explore the decarbonisation of the ironmaking process, and leverage the natural advantages of Australia – namely our iron ore resources and the abundant potential for renewable energy.

“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.”

The partnership announcement has received support from industry. Western Australian Premier, Roger Cook, said, “Western Australia is in the box seat in the global energy transition, and my government is committed to securing a strong future for Western Australia – creating long-term local jobs in a clean energy economy.”

Mr Cook said that Western Australia is best positioned to support a low-carbon steel project, given its vast reserves of high-grade iron ore, mature and advanced iron ore industry, local technological know-how, and significant renewable energy opportunities.

“We look forward to engaging with Rio Tinto, BHP and BlueScope on how we can support this project.”

Featured Image: (L-R) BHP WAIO Asset President, Tim Day, BlueScope Chief Executive Australia, Tania Archibald, and Rio Tinto Iron Ore Chief Executive, Simon Trott at the partnership announcement. Image credit: BHP.

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