When it comes to climate change, every source of carbon emissions matters. It’s easy to say that if something is only single figures, it can’t possibly be that important – I hear this from people defending aviation on a regular basis. But if we have to reach zero carbon, those things can’t be ignored. If we don’t address those apparently smaller sources of carbon emissions, they will grow disproportionately larger over time as the carbon budget shrinks.
Aviation is one of those problems – just 2% of global carbon, says the industry, but rapidly growing. The internet is another – just 3.5% of global CO2 emissions. And another is steel, at 6%.
Alongside aluminium and cement, steel is a vital material with an oversized footprint. It is used in construction, cars, machinery and equipment. It’s particularly important for buildings and infrastructure, and rapidly developing countries needs lots of it. China uses a third of the world’s steel, and demand is on an upward trajectory.
And of course, steel takes huge quantities of energy to produce. Blast furnaces running on coal yield 2 to 3 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of steel, though older production methods can emit as much as 12 tonnes. Steel recycling can be done with electric furnaces, but virgin steel still relies heavily on fossil fuels.
The first fossil-free steel is on its way though. Swedish firm SSAB have announced that they are investing in a new process that uses hydrogen instead of coal or coke. Their pilot project is due to open in 2022, and the first fossil free steel will reach the market in 2026.
“By challenging technology that has remained essentially unchanged for almost a thousand years, we will in principle eliminate all fossil carbon dioxide emissions” says SSAB CTO Martin Pei. “To date, CO2 has been an unavoidable by-product in making steel from iron ore. With HYBRIT technology, the only emission will be water.”
SSAB already uses electric arc furnaces for steel reprocessing, and by 2022 those operations will be powered by 100% renewable energy. Between the arc furnaces and its new hydrogen process, the whole steel company would be fossil free by 2045.
Of course, those sceptical of hydrogen power will point out that it is only as clean as the energy used to make it. No news on SSAB’s sources at this point, but there is growing interest in storing renewable energy in the form of hydrogen. (I’m a micro-investor myself in a tidal to hydrogen project in the Orkney Islands.) Just last week the energy company Engie announced a new plan to use solar power to produce hydrogen for transport vehicles in France. This is a commercial reality, and green hydrogen could well be a viable route for steel companies.
That’s one company of course, and there’s a whole global industry to transition. That’s still a huge mountain to climb, but from SSAB’s announcement we know that it is technically possible. Whether it’s possible in time to prevent runaway climate change is another question.