It’s tempting to think of steel as something humanity didn’t get until after the industrial revolution, but that’s only partially true. Steelmaking dates back thousands of years, and things like swords and springs were made. They probably didn’t know why the better irons they were blasting out in bloom furnaces were stronger, but instead of studying atomic structures that weren’t know at the time, they took an “If it works, go with it.” attitude. But, just because it worked didn’t mean it was easy or possible to make in large quantities.
So, for most of its history, steel was only used for items where no easier and cheaper alternative was available (often weapons). It didn’t get used in structures, vehicles, and other things where they’d need a lot of steel.
Its widespread industrial use began only in the 17th century with the introduction of more efficient production methods, like blast furnaces and crucible steel. This was followed by open-hearth furnaces in England in the mid-19th century, which paved way for mass production of steel via the Bessemer process. With this invention, mild steel replaced wrought iron as the preferred choice among manufacturers and consumers alike, and steel could be used for everything from buildings to cars because it wasn’t a limited-production metal.
But, there’s a problem with steel. It not only requires carbon-intensive energy to melt down the iron and create steel, but it requires carbon atoms to make the steel stronger. That’s why the use of coking coal is so popular with steel production — it literally contributes carbon to the metal’s mass in a chemical reaction.
Today, steel is one of the most manufactured things in the world. We can use it to build things that were previously impossible, like skyscrapers and cars that don’t kill their occupants in crashes as often. But, making all of that steel requires a lot of carbon, and it ends up contributing about 8% of human carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. So, we’ve got to find ways to cut back on that.
Fortunately, there are companies working on making lower-impact steel, and Ford is working with some of them to get that greener, leaner steel into their vehicles.
The company recently announced that it is taking more steps to ensure a stable supply of low carbon steel for its future products. This will help the company reach its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2035. The company has entered into Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with Salzgitter Flachstahl GmbH, Tata Steel Nederland B.V., and ThyssenKrupp Steel Europe AG in order to secure this supply.
Three of Ford’s major suppliers have announced they will be boosting production of low carbon steel in the next few years. This is excellent news for Ford, as it means a considerable decrease in the company’s CO2 footprint. The first application of this new steel will be on Ford’s all-electric, medium-sized crossover vehicle, set to come out in 2023.
“Our customers, like us, want to take care of our planet, and we are taking the necessary steps on this journey, providing the vehicles they need to make a positive contribution against climate change, produced in a more sustainable way,” said Sue Slaughter, purchasing director, supply chain sustainability, Ford Motor Company. “Improvements within our supply chain are key, and with the use of carbon neutral steel we will take a major step towards lowering the CO2 footprint of our vehicles.”
A reduction of CO2 emissions throughout the supply chain is vital to Ford’s plan of achieving carbon neutrality across all European facilities, logistics, and suppliers by 2035. In order to reach this difficult yet ambitious goal, Ford needs to produce highly efficient vehicles by analyzing the entire value chain. With new energy-efficient solutions being put into place, major updates at the Cologne Electrification Centre production facility will save around 2,000+ tonnes of CO2 emissions along with 2,600 MWh per year in electric energy.
The initiative will also contribute to the company’s commitment of using 10% carbon-neutral steel by 2030. This was announced earlier this year when Ford joined the First Movers Coalition. The First Movers Coalition is a global initiative created by the World Economic Forum to harness purchasing power and supply chains. Their goal is to create early markets for innovative clean energy technologies, which Ford’s contribution will help with.
The steel companies will use green hydrogen and renewable energies in new production processes to gradually reduce their CO2 footprint. In other words, they will contribute to the European Green Deal’s goal of achieving zero net emissions by 2050.
How Can Steel Be Made Without Carbon Emissions?
Ford’s plans are great, but some readers are probably wondering how it even works to produce steel without making a negative contribution to climate change, or how it can even be reduced.
Recyling scrap steel gives us some clues. Steel can often be recycled by melting it using electricity, specifically arcs of electricity (like lightning, or an electric welder).
But, recycling can’t cover all needs. It will definitely be an important part of the future, but processing ore into steel will still be needed.
There are multiple possible methods, but they usually involve burning hydrogen instead of fossil fuels to produce the heat needed for steel production. This doesn’t give the steel the carbon it needs, but it does enable other methods of carbonizing the steel or decarbonizing pig irons (iron with too much carbon to be strong). Add in some arc-based melting, and you can produce steel with a lot of electricity instead of coal or other fossil fuels.
This can still be problematic, as renewable electricity (and a lot of it) would be needed to make green hydrogen and the electrical arcing needed to melt steel, but that’s a problem that can be solved with more solar, wind, and other renewable generating capacity, which is at least possible (even if hard).
Whatever specific process is being used, it’s good to see that a real manufacturer is buying steel that was made with less carbon emissions and it isn’t just happening in a laboratory.
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