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Transport & Logistics

Rio Tinto accelerates towards 50 percent emissions reduction target

9 Feb 2022, by Amy Sarcevic

Rio Tinto, a recognised leader in sustainable practices, is taking further strides towards its target of 50 percent emissions reduction by 2030, with a new fleet of battery electric locomotives now being trialled.

The new energy-efficient vehicles, currently in prototype form, will integrate with Rio’s world-famous AutoHaul® project – a fully autonomous fleet of ore trains that has so far accrued 30 million kilometres on the Pilbara WA line.

In a bid to further decarbonise its operation, the award-winning company will soon also commence its journey towards centralised interlocking and virtual block signalling, along with some smaller, albeit important, decarbonisation strategies.

Dr Paul Nicholson, a Principal Engineer for AutoHaul® says these moves serve several key functions in its trail-blazing quest towards environmentally-friendly logistics.

“The first is to reduce the amount of equipment stored out there on the wayside. That equipment is in a pretty hostile environment, and can consume a lot of power. The second is to get more production out of the railway by allowing us to work trains closer together,” he said ahead of the ARA Heavy Haul Rail Conference.

The electricity for the locomotives will be generated by renewable means, i.e. from solar and wind farms. Instead of overhead cables, it will be stored on board the locomotives in batteries, reducing infrastructure and maintenance requirements, with secondary environmental benefits.

“Overhead cables were not suitable for an operation of our size. The railway stretches up to 1500 km in length, in an extremely harsh environment. As well as being very expensive, there was the environmental impact of the cable building to consider. It would have been pretty disruptive in terms of footprint on the land, with the line running through some major national forests and native titles,” Nicholson said.

Alongside overhead cables, several other technologies were ruled out from the company decarbonisation agenda.  “We considered full network electrification, but this introduced new hazards that didn’t meet our operational needs,” he said.

Despite a government push for heavy industries to begin clean hydrogen initiatives, Dr. Nicholson says the company has also ruled out this energy source, for the time being.

“The hydrogen industry and supply chain is not quite where it needs to be in terms of scale and viability. Besides, no prototypes have been built for Hydrogen Heavy Haul locomotives.

However, the company maintains a fluid approach when it comes to procuring clean energy technology and will consider hydrogen and other maturing technologies, should they become viable.

“We are not married to battery electric and are fully prepared to switch course along the way if a better alternative comes along. Ultimately, we are users, not developers, of battery electronic technology, so there is no personal agenda on that front,” Nicholson said.

The company’s criteria for future clean energy technology procurement are varied, including maturity of the technology, cost of maintaining, cost of operating, emissions reduction potential, and overall capital costs.

Additionally, the company looks at what changes any new technologies would require to the railway and infrastructure, how easily it can be transitioned to, along with safety, ethical and community considerations.

Hear more from Dr. Nicholson about what Rio Tinto is planning for its clean energy push at the ARA Heavy Haul Rail Conference, due to take place 6-7 April at the Ritz-Carlton Perth.  

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