Steel is the most important material in the world for engineering and construction. It is employed in almost every area of our life, including automobiles and construction equipment, refrigerators and washing machines, cargo ships, and surgical scalpels. Accordingly, the industry also emits 7% of the world’s total CO2 emissions. In Sweden, steel production accounts for over 10% of the country’s CO2 emissions.
According to the Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven, Sweden’s ambition is to become the first fossil-free nation in the world. Cutting 7% of the country’s CO2 emissions would be a crucial step in the right direction. Thus, three Swedish businesses; LKAB, SSAB, and Vattenfall, have joined forces to develop the world’s first fossil-free steel. The initiative is called HYBRIT (Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology) and the plan is to be able to produce entirely fossil-free steel in a demonstration facility by 2026 and on an industrial scale by 2035. The pilot project produced fossil-free steel in August this year.
Traditional steel-making uses blast furnaces to add coking coal to the iron ore, which in turn releases CO2. The new process would add hydrogen from renewable sources to the already fossil-free iron ore in a so-called direct reduction process that emits only water vapor. But this transition will require immense amounts of hydrogen and renewable energy for production.
HYBRIT will use renewable electricity from wind, water, and solar to extract hydrogen from water via electrolysis . Electrolysis requires large quantities of reliable electricity, which creates challenges. Vattenfall asserts that more fossil-free electricity is produced than consumed in Sweden but the energy is not evenly distributed in the country. A short term goal is therefore to invest in distribution grids that can bring fossil-free electricity where it’s needed. In the long-term, more renewable electricity needs to be found.
Another factor is hydrogen storage, which would allow hydrogen to be produced when electricity is abundant and used when the electricity system is strained. To ensure a steady supply of fossil-free hydrogen, it is critical to be able to store it safely and efficiently.
Bottom line: Fossil-free steel is possible, but transitioning from carbon to green hydrogen for producing fossil-free steel on an industrial scale necessitates changes to business models and upgrades to infrastructure. Research at the intersections of technology, infrastructure, markets, and society can help identify the policies needed for conversion.
* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).