Sweden's HYBRIT Delivers Fossil-Free Steel

It's made with hydrogen instead of coal, and isn't a fantasy anymore.

steel ingot
Fossil-fuel-free steel ingot.


The making of steel releases a lot of carbon dioxide. It's chemistry; iron ore is basically rust, also known as iron oxide. You get rid of the oxygen by mixing in pulverized coal; the carbon combines with the oxygen and is emitted as CO2. Lots of CO2: Making steel is responsible for 8% of the world's emissions.

However, oxygen also reacts with hydrogen, emitting water (H2O). HYBRIT (short for Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology)—a joint venture of Swedish steel, mining, and electricity companies—used green hydrogen produced through electrolysis. Now it has rolled its first ingot of fossil-free steel and delivered it to Volvo.

The HYBRIT team announcing the first fossil free steel. SSAB

Martin Lindqvist, president and CEO of steelmaker SSAB announced:

“The first fossil-free steel in the world is not only a breakthrough for SSAB, it represents proof that it’s possible to make the transition and significantly reduce the global carbon footprint of the steel industry. We hope that this will inspire others to also want to speed up the green transition.”

Mining company LKAB's president Jan Moström continues:

“It’s a crucial milestone and an important step towards creating a completely fossil-free value chain from mine to finished steel. We’ve now shown together that it’s possible, and the journey continues. By industrializing this technology in the future and making the transition to the production of sponge iron on an industrial scale, we will enable the steel industry to make the transition. This is the greatest thing we can do together for the climate.” 
Comparison of steel making processes
Comparison of steel making processes. HYBRIT 

Sponge iron can be made at lower temperatures than pig iron and is then mixed with scrap in electric arc furnaces to make crude steel. HYBRIT is converting the entire steel-making process, from mining the ore to finished product, to run on electricity, and expanding the clean electricity supply to meet this demand.

"The goal is to deliver fossil-free steel to the market and demonstrate the technology on an industrial scale as early as 2026. Using HYBRIT technology, SSAB has the potential to reduce Sweden’s total carbon dioxide emissions by approximately ten percent and Finland’s by approximately seven percent."

Is this a big deal?

Steel Demand
Steel Deman. HYBRIT 

One of the great joys of being a Treehugger writer for a few years is that occasionally you get to eat your words. I have been consistently negative about what I have called the "hydrogen fantasy," with companies and governments promoting it as a drop-in replacement for methane/ natural gas.

When I first wrote about HYBRIT, I noted they projected continued growth in demand for steel, that much of it came from China and other countries without the capabilities to make green hydrogen, and that "given the deadlines imposed by the Paris Agreement and the need to keep the global temperature rise under 1.5 degrees, a pilot project in Sweden isn't going to cut it."

But as Adrian Hiel of Energy Cities noted, "hydrogen is clearly better suited to some challenges more than others." Energy expert Michael Liebreich has modified Hiel's clean hydrogen ladder showing how hydrogen can play a big role in heavy industries like steelmaking and fertilizer. Fossil-free steel is about 20 to 30% more expensive than conventional steel, but carbon taxes and carbon border adjustments, where a tax is applied on imports based on the embodied carbon in them, will likely make conventional steel more expensive. Meanwhile, the rapid rollout of renewable power will make fossil-free steel cheaper.

I concluded my last post with my usual plea for sufficiency: "So we should build our buildings out of wood instead of steel; make cars smaller and lighter and get a bike. Carbon-free steel isn't a fantasy, but it will take decades. Using less steel can happen a lot faster."

P1800 Volvo

But here's HYBRIT projecting full commercial production in 2026. Perhaps I am too pessimistic, and that HYBRIT steel will go into cute and teensy electric Volvos–SSAB is delivering steel to both Volvo Group, which makes trucks, and Volvo Cars. That may be a fantasy, but we can always dream.

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