Hydrogen From Renewables Could Make Emissions-Free Steel Possible

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A consortium in Sweden has embarked on an experimental program that could slash carbon emissions from making steel, a development that caught the attention of Bill McKibben. Mårten Görnerup is the CEO of Hybrit, a joint venture between Swedish steelmaker SSAB, power utility Vattenfall, and LKAB, Europe’s largest iron ore producer. “Our pilot plant will only emit water vapor,” he tells Euractiv.

zero emissions steel from Sweden
Credit: Onni Wiljami Kinnunen / SSAB

“The solution that we have opted for is to have a completely fossil fuel free value chain for steel production,” he says. The aim is to replace imported coke and coal coming from oversees and instead use hydrogen produced from fossil-free electricity. Hydrogen will then be used as the main reductant to reduce iron ore and produce metallic iron. And this process will only emit water vapor instead of carbon dioxide.” If the new process were applied to all of Sweden’s steel making industry, the nation’s carbon emissions could be reduced by 10%, Görnerup says.

“We have now completed a feasibility study on the pilot plant. This means we can start work and excavation this summer. Then, we will continue with the design of the pilot facilities, with the aim of having the pilot plant up and running by 2020.”

The emissions-free steel will cost 20% to 30% more than conventional steel, but that difference should narrow in the years ahead as the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme ratchets up the cost of putting carbon emissions into the atmosphere from the industrial sector. The cost of renewables should also continue to decline while the price of fossil fuels increases over time.

“The world will be very different by the time our demonstration plant comes online in the late ‘20s, and our production plants are added in the ‘30s and ‘40s. By then, industrial companies will have to pay most or all of the real costs of their greenhouse gas pollution, and renewable energy will be cheaper and far more abundant. So we feel confident fossil fuel free steel will be very competitive,” Görnerup says.

A fully operational steel making facility using the hydrogen technology is not expected to come online until 2040. The first pilot plant will be a “proof of concept” facility.

“The pilot plant is used more as an experimental tool — you can run specific experimental campaigns for up to two months. Then you evaluate, tweak a few settings, and run more experiments to find the optimum conditions for reduction.

“We hope that by 2024, we will have a pretty good grip on how this process should take place and start to plan for the next step, which is a demonstration plant. The main difference is that the demonstration plant will run as an industrial facility operating 24/7 for months. The demonstration plant will be more industrial-size. We believe it will be somewhere around half a million tonnes per year. And it will run as a normal factory.”

The new steelmaking process may not be suitable for all regions in the world, as it depends on an abundant supply of cheap renewable energy. At present, the amount of electricity needed to convert Swedish steel production to the new zero emissions process is equivalent to the amount Sweden exports to other countries.

“Sweden is a sweet spot, I would say, because we have this abundance of fossil fuel free electricity in the North. We also have an iron ore mining company and the R&D facilities located in the Luleå iron ore fields up North. There is also a steelmaking site, which is a third party in our joint venture,” Görnerup says.

Will the new process be adopted throughout the industry? It’s too soon to tell, according to Görnerup. “Of course, we have started to discuss this with our European counterparts. But there are other initiatives going on. And at some point, we should either try to find common ground or figure out which are the most realistic alternatives for the future.”

Is emissions-free steel as sexy as Tesla’s new interior options? Not by a long shot. But it may make a more valuable contribution to the environment in the long run. Normally, we are not inclined to say nice things about using renewable energy to make hydrogen but this is the exception. There are still many variables that will impact whether this idea gains traction, including the amount of assistance the project gets from the Swedish government and the EU.

“A high enough price of carbon on the ETS would be the main requirement to make this work,” Görnerup says. “This would certainly help level the playing field with fossil-intensive steel making. You could also think of pull effects on the market, for instance, if governments stipulate that the steel they purchase needs to be fossil fuel free. But I would say it’s still too early to say. Who would know how much the milk will cost in 2025?” Hard to argue with that.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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