Last month, CleanTechnica reported on Hybrit, a consortium composed of Swedish steelmaker SSAB, power utility Vattenfall, and LKAB, Europe’s largest iron ore producer that plans to make steel without using any fossil fuels. “Our pilot plant will only emit water vapor,” says Hybrit CEO Mårten Görnerup. While the process works in the lab, now it needs to prove its merit in the commercial world.
“The solution that we have opted for is to have a completely fossil fuel free value chain for steel production. 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.
Hybrit has just broken ground for its first pilot plant in Luleå, Sweden, in a ceremony led by Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. The plan calls for the plant to be completed and the first steel produced in 2020. “By testing in pilot scale, we can leave the small scale laboratory environment and instead mimic the coming industrial process, and prepare for efficient production. We are very happy to be able to enter the next phase and get one step closer to our target of fossil-free steel production, with all its environmental benefits,” Görnerup says in a press release.
Steel-making is an important part of the Swedish economy. The Hybrit process could lower the country’s carbon emissions by 10%, which will be crucial to it meeting its commitments made in the Paris climate accords. “Vattenfall wants to make it possible to live fossil-free within a generation. Helping steel production to change is one of the most important contributions we can give. By using our fossil-free electricity to large-scale production of hydrogen, we can enable technical shifts that will have a great impact on climate emissions,” says Magnus Hall, Vattenfall’s CEO.
The pilot plant will act as a laboratory where new ideas and techniques can be tested. Construction of actual steel-making facilities is expected to begin sometime after 2030, with full production expected by 2040. At first, the low emissions steel will be more expensive than steel made by traditional methods, but “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.
When we ran a story about Hybrit in May, many CleanTechnica readers questioned many of its low emissions claims based on the fact that the hydrogen needed to make the process work comes largely from reforming natural gas, which requires significant quantities of energy and produces copious amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. It is unlikely you will find a better discussion of the pros and cons of using hydrogen in an industrial process than in the comments to that article. Our CleanTechnica community includes some really smart and well-informed people.
“Fossil-free steel production starts in the mine. We are working intensely with how the future pelletizing plant should be constructed to find an energy efficient production process. The challenge for LKAB in Hybrit, and our contribution, is to develop carbon dioxide free direct reduction pellets. This is where the pilot plant will play a crucial part, before we can take it to an industrial scale,” says Jan Moström, the head of LKAB.
There is a long way to go before anyone knows if the new process will be competitive in the marketplace. “A high enough price of carbon on the ETS (the European carbon trading system) 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?” Elon Musk isn’t the only businessman willing to take high stakes risk in order to give the world a fighting chance of survival.