Green hydrogen is among the pathways under development to decarbonize iron- and steelmaking (image courtesy of Lhyfe).

Green Hydrogen To Help Eject Fossil Fuels From Steel Industry

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Decarbonizing the global steel industry is a tough row to hoe, but it must be done, and fast. Industry analysts project that demand for iron and steel could rise by up to 40% by 2050, assuming we’re not all underwater by then. Some steelmakers have dug in their heels on account of the increased cost. However, the green steel movement is gaining traction, with an assist from green hydrogen stakeholders.

This Green Steel Hopeful Says Nay To Green Hydrogen…

Conventional steelmaking leans heavily on coal. The iron used for making steel is rendered from raw ore by coal-sourced gases. Coal is also the source of process heat and it provides carbon content for finished steel. Natural gas is also used in some processes.

The decarbonization task is a big one. The iron and steel industry is credited with being “the most greenhouse gas intensive industry” in modern times. It is also the single biggest consumer of coal on the planet, credited with eating up about 7% of the world’s energy supply and emitting 7–9% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to one conservative estimate.

Green hydrogen one of several decarbonization pathways to emerge in the steel industry, and the EU is among the governments providing healthy subsidies to shepherd it along. However, the going has been slow. The leading European steelmaker ArcelorMittal has been making some decarbonization progress, but on February 24 the news organization Hydrogen Insight reported some gloomy news in the green hydrogen area.

“Steel giant ArcelorMittal has said it cannot operate its European plants using green hydrogen, despite being granted billions of euros of EU subsidies to install equipment to do so, because the resulting green steel would be unable to compete on international markets,” Hydrogen Insight reporter Rachel Parker reported.

Parker also surmised that the company would use fossil-sourced gas instead of green hydrogen, though it could also cut its carbon footprint by importing green DRI (Direct Reduced Iron) from overseas.

…And This One Says Yay

All is not lost, however. Another European steelmaker has picked up the green hydrogen ball. On April 30, the French hydrogen producer Lhyfe announced a new agreement with the Swiss Steel Group subsidiary Ugitech to launch a green hydrogen unit at the company’s Ugine facility in France. The exact size is up in the air, but the agreement calls for a maximum capacity of 30 megawatts or about 12 metric tons of green hydrogen daily, produced from water with an electrolysis system.

“This is the first agreement in Europe to replace fossil fuels with green hydrogen in the stainless steel sector,” Lhyfe noted.

That’s pretty impressive, though it’s not a full decarbonization project. As described by Lhyfe, the sustainable H2 will push natural gas from some of the heat-related processing equipment at the facility including burners and furnaces.

Still, this is Lhyfe’s first MOU with a steelmaker. If all goes according to plan, it could provide the company with a showcase for deploying green hydrogen throughout the industry, and Lhyfe aims to do just that in time for the 2030 Winter Olympics.

Ugitech also has a broader purpose in mind. The company is lead coordinator of a wider-ranging EU project called HYDREAMS, which aims to assess the performance, cost, and quality control angles of substituting hydrogen for natural gas in thermal processes.

“HYDREAMS has nine European partners and has received a grant from the European RFCS fund,” notes Ugitech Director of Development Frédéric Perret.

Green steel is just part of the Ugitech electrolyzer project. Lhyfe also plans to ship some of the hydrogen from the electrolyzer system to transportation stakeholders in the region.

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More Green Hydrogen For US Steelmakers

Here in the US, CleanTechnica has taken note of electric arc furnaces and other decarbonization strategies deployed by the firm Nucor at its new Kentucky plant, which is producing steel for use in wind turbines. “Nucor claims that the greenhouse gas intensity of its steel is 1/5 the average for conventional steel making from raw materials in blast furnaces,” we observed back in January of 2023.

More green steel activity has been stirring in the US since then. Just last week, for example, the US Department of Energy announced a new round of awardees under its new “ROSIE” program, aimed specifically at decarbonizing blast furnaces.

“Current blast furnace technologies — responsible for approximately 70% of global iron and steel GHG emissions — require carbon for heat, chemistry, and structure, making the process particularly difficult to decarbonize,” observes the Energy Department’s ARPA-E office for new high risk, which is administering the ROSIE program.

The new round of funding went to 13 awardees that are developing new and different decarbonization strategies for iron- and steelmaking. In the hydrogen area, we’re going to presume that green hydrogen is the ultimate goal, though that may not be forthcoming in the immediate future depending on cost and availability.

The roster of awardees indicates that ARPA-E has spotted an excited, plasma form of hydrogen plasma as a potential opportunity. The new ARPA-E round of funding includes one project described as a “microwave-powered hydrogen plasma rotary kiln” under development at the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory, and another hydrogen plasma system at the University of Minnesota.

Tufts University also won a grant for a different approach to ore reduction. Researchers there are exploring the use of ammonia in tandem with other new features aimed at reduce the cost of domestic steel. Ammonia (NH3) is made up of hydrogen and nitrogen, leaving the door open for green ammonia at some point.

The University of Utah is working on another hydrogen-dependent project described as “melt-less steelmaking technology.” The school’s award comes under the school’s Powder Research Laboratory headed up by research assistant professor Dr. Pei Sun, whose doctoral research involved a new “powder metallurgy process-hydrogen sintering and phase transformation” for titanium. Loosely speaking, the process involves rendering the metal into a powder and pressing it into a shape. The same process can be applied to steel.

Meanwhile, last fall Purdue University Northwest also received funding from the Energy Department to support the development of an industry-scale reheating furnace powered by hydrogen.

“More than 80 reheating furnaces across the U.S. burn natural gas to reheat semi-finished products, generating 200 kg of carbon dioxide per ton of steel,” the school noted, emphasizing that aim of the project is to demonstrate the potential for alternative fuels to decarbonize heavy industry.

Decarbonization depends on the source of the hydrogen, of course. Purdue already seems to have that angle in hand. The school is part of the Midwest Hydrogen Hub consortium, selected by the Energy Department to receive an award under the agency’s $7 billion Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs program. As required by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, some of the hubs include hydrogen sourced from natural gas, but Purdue notes that the Midwest hub is focusing on water electrolysis.

Photo (cropped): Green hydrogen is among the pathways under development to decarbonize iron- and steelmaking (courtesy of Lhyfe).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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