R&D and Technology
Technology and R&D are integral to our business, helping us run safer, more efficient operations and leave a lighter footprint.
For the world to reach net zero we must find better ways provide the materials it needs. Some of the technology we need to get to net zero by 2050 doesn’t exist today, so we need to contribute, support and partner to make it a reality. That’s why we’re nurturing an innovative culture – one where our people can help to meet these challenges with courage and creativity.
We’ve built an industry-leading technology and R&D organisation, and we’re partnering with universities, governments, other companies and start-ups to test, develop and accelerate technology that can support our strategy.
ELYSIS, our joint venture with Alcoa, supported by Apple, the Government of Canada and the Government of Quebec, is developing a breakthrough inert anode technology that eliminates all direct greenhouse gases from the aluminium smelting process.
BlueSmelting™ is a new ilmenite smelting technology that could generate 95% less greenhouse gas emissions than the current reduction process, enabling the production of titanium dioxide, steel and metal powders with a significantly lower carbon footprint.
BioIron™ uses raw, sustainable biomass and microwave energy instead of coal to convert Pilbara iron ore to iron in the steelmaking process. BioIron has the potential to be carbon neutral and can result in net negative emissions when linked with carbon capture and storage. The pilot has been successful and now we’re planning to test it on a larger scale.
In partnership with Sumitomo Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, we’re building a first-of-a-kind hydrogen pilot plant at our Yarwun alumina refinery in Gladstone, Queensland, Australia.
We are disciplined in our approach to R&D. Our technology roadmap focused on 5 areas aligned to our strategic priorities.
To help us find better ways to provide the materials the world needs, our Chief Scientist Nigel and his team search the world for the most innovative technologies and ideas that can shape the future of sustainable mining. Today we have over 500 experts dedicated to R&D, spread across Canada, France, Australia, the US, the UK and China. Alongside our in-house expertise, we also have an ecosystem of partners across the globe including universities, government research labs and start-ups.
Nigel is our Chief Scientist, responsible for leading our global technology and R&D programme. He holds a Bachelor of Science (Engineering) and a PhD in Metallurgy and Materials Science from Imperial College London, UK and is an Associate of the Royal School of Mines. He also holds an MBA from Queen’s University, Canada. Nigel has more than 30 years’ experience in operational roles in our aluminium, copper and diamonds divisions, including as Managing Director of Copper & Diamonds Operations.
In 2023 we established an Innovation Advisory Committee comprising innovation and R&D experts from around the world. The Committee will provide insights on ways we can accelerate our innovation portfolio as well as offer guidance on emerging and disruptive technologies in areas including health and safety, environmental, social and governance, growth, carbon abatement and productivity.
We harness new and emerging technologies to make our operations safer and more efficient, and to leave a lighter environmental footprint. And we do this all the way through the mining life cycle as we explore, design, build, operate and close our operations.
About 80% of our haul truck fleet across our Pilbara iron ore operations is autonomous. These trucks, which use pre-defined GPS courses to automatically navigate haul roads and intersections, and which continuously track actual locations, speeds and directions of other vehicles, allow us to move more material, more efficiently and safely, increasing productivity.
We also continue to expand our Autonomous Drilling System (ADS) and now have a fleet of 32 production drills across 7 sites.
Our operations centres in Perth and Brisbane in Australia, and the Saguenay region in Canada enable mines, processing facilities, ports and rail systems in these regions to be operated from a single location. The teams work in rooms filled with screens that show the entire operation in action – in real-time. Using tools like predictive maths, clever computer code and powerful software, our operations centres help us identify opportunities for improvements and efficiencies – from finding the best way to get ore from the ground to improving the way we make products.
We use drones and ROVs for real-time 3D mapping and equipment inspections, as well as checking slopes, crests and walls for safety risks like cracks and signs of rock movement. One of the biggest benefits of our drones is safety. There are some jobs where it is better for drones to do it rather than people – for example high wall mapping. By using drones, we are removing people from harm’s way. We are also using drones fitted with thermal diagnostic capability to identify equipment problems from the air. We can identify high friction rates on equipment in real time and notify the maintenance teams so the issues can be addressed.
Our Centres of Excellence bring together our foremost technical experts to work with our operations around the world. They focus on analytics, automation, asset management, orebody knowledge, underground mining, surface mining and processing. These smart mining teams help us make the right technical judgements and decisions to help us manage our major hazard risks and assure the safety of our assets and operational excellence.
Our Mine Automation System (MAS) operates like a network server application, pulling together data at 98% of our sites, and mining it for information. MAS provides this information in a common format, using sophisticated algorithms. It can be displayed visually using RTVis™ – Rio Tinto Visualisation – or through more conventional operational type dashboards with graphs, charts and tables.
We then use artificial intelligence to make the best use of our systems. We can automatically generate orebody models, organise equipment dispatch, and predict and control blasts. We have even optimised the speed and reduced queuing of our autonomous trucks – these small improvements have produced significant gains in productivity.
We built RTVis™ – Rio Tinto Visualisation – with a 3D gaming engine to help us see inside our operations. We can fly over a site and dive down to the detailed information we need. We can hover over an excavator, follow a haul truck, or examine an orebody.
The software brings together geology, geotechnical, drill and blast, production and planning, and visualises surface and sub-surface features. There are also various analytics tools to help us make sense of our data and information for better decision-making.
RTVis has delivered many benefits to our operations, including more accurate drilling and blasting, reduced explosive use, and better waste classification, which means that our trucks carry less waste material and more ore – this boosts productivity and lowers costs.
Satellites stream oceans of data telling us everything from the position of a truck to where our next discovery might be. We have built computer systems that analyse data and make decisions in microseconds. An ore crusher at an iron ore processing plant can talk to trucks and let them know when it needs more ore. At our bauxite mine in Weipa, special mathematical software helps our port schedulers manage hundreds of ships a year. Using data in these ways helps us minimise downtime, reduce energy use and cut operating costs.