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Climate Change

Rio Tinto tests biomass as coal alternative for lower steel emissions

Mining company 'encouraged' by results of trials with agricultural byproducts

Rio Tinto's new method uses agricultural byproducts like wheat straw instead of coking coal, reducing net carbon emissions tied to steelmaking.   © Reuters

SYDNEY -- Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto is developing a new technology to replace coking coal with farm waste in steelmaking, as part of a growing push within the sector to reduce carbon emissions.

Depending on the results of current and future tests, the company sees a potential to make the technology available on a commercial scale in as early as 10 years.

Steelmaking accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to Rio Tinto. The challenge of cutting this output has brought mining companies together with steelmakers.

"We are encouraged by early testing results of this new process, which could provide a cost-efficient way to produce low-carbon steel from our Pilbara iron ore," Rio Tinto Iron Ore Chief Executive Simon Trott said Thursday.

Coking or metallurgical coal provides an essential fuel and chemical agent for turning iron ore into steel. The amount of carbon in the steel affects qualities such as hardness.

Rio Tinto's new method blends biomass consisting of agricultural byproducts, like wheat straw and corn leaves and stalks, with iron ore fines. The mix is heated to create lumps, then placed in an electric furnace to remove impurities.

Though the method does produce carbon dioxide, the emissions will be largely offset by the plants that are the source of biomass fuel over their lifetimes, according to the company.

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