Swedish Steelmaker Aiming for Fossil-Fuel Free Steel

It may not be a fantasy after all.

HYBRIT Pilot Plant
HYBRIT Pilot Plant.


The last time I wrote about using hydrogen instead of coke to make steel, I noted that it could be done, but wrote the subhead: Yes, in theory. Doing it in practice is a whole other story. This is another example of how the hydrogen economy is a fantasy. However, a new pilot project from HYBRIT (Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology) – a joint venture of mining, steel production, and electricity companies – is demonstrating a complete pathway to true, zero-carbon steel. I may have to eat my previous words.

Traditional Steelmaking
Traditional steelmaking with coal and coke. HYBRIT 

As explained previously when looking at the ThyssenKrupp process, converting iron ore to steel requires the separation of oxygen from the iron in the ore. Traditionally this is done by adding coke; the carbon combines with the oxygen to produce CO2. A lot of CO2.

Fe2O3 + 3 CO becomes 2 Fe + 3 CO2

Hydrogen Process
Hydrogen Process.  HYBRIT

The new process involves replacing the 3 carbon atoms with hydrogen, which combined with the oxygen to make water instead of CO2. The problem with ThyssenKrupp was that it used hydrogen produced by steam reforming of natural gas, because that's what they have in Germany. And it needed a LOT of hydrogen to take the place of all that coal. A big difference is that Sweden has a lot of renewable energy, and is building more, so that their plan is to use true green hydrogen made through electrolysis of water.

Comparison of steel making processes
Comparison of steel making processes. HYBRIT 

The press release for HYBRIT says "for the first time in 1,000 years, there is an opportunity for a technology shift." Henry Bessemer might get a laugh out of that, because for 2,000 years before he invented the Bessemer converter, sponge iron was made through direct reduction, which is the process HYBRIT is using here. Sponge iron requires less energy to make because the ore is converted at a much lower temperature. However the sponge iron is like pig iron, 90 to 94% iron, so it then is used as a feedstock for in electric arc furnaces, where it is mixed with recycled steel.

Fossil Emissions
Fossil Emissions. HYBRIT 

What's so interesting about this pilot project is that they are not just saying "let's make steel with hydrogen," but are looking at the entire production process. This will take a LOT of electricity, 15 TWh per year, a tenth of Sweden's electricity production for the electrolysis and the steel melting in the reducer and the electric arc furnaces.

There is also a pilot project to make low-carbon iron ore pellets: "Testing a bio-oil system is part of the pilot phase and the objective is to convert one of LKAB's pelletizing plants from fossil fuel to 100-percent-renewable fuel."

A third pilot project will look at the storage of hydrogen underground. "When implemented in larger scale, this type of storage will secure ability of hydrogen to the industrial process during all hours of the day. It may also serve as grid balancing through load shifting. This will be an important component to support and stabilize the energy system in the future."

As Scott Carpenter of Forbes notes,

It will be no picnic. In an earlier study, HYBRIT concluded that fossil-free steel, given current prices of electricity, coal and carbon dioxide emissions, would be 20-30% more expensive than steel made the usual way. However, as environmental regulations steadily make carbon-intensive industries more and more expensive, prices for fossil-free steel will eventually fall to competitive levels, HYBRIT believes. 

But after all the hype of hydrogen cars and trains and steel plants that were really running on gray hydrogen (what do those colors mean?) it's so exciting to see (for the first time I can recall) a plan that actually honestly goes through the entire process instead of just pretending that all hydrogen is somehow greener than gas.

So What's the Fantasy?

Steel Demand
Steel Deman. HYBRIT 

HYBRIT projects continued growth in steel demand, both in recycled and in steel made from ore. Seven percent of the CO2 released into the atmosphere each year comes from traditional steelmaking, most of it in places, from Germany to China, that do not have Sweden's capabilities for making green hydrogen. 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.

A reader previously complained that "we can make more progress in less time by using less. That being true it should be upfront in every article." I apologize for putting it at the bottom, but repeat from my last post:

It's why I always return to the same place. We have to substitute materials that we grow instead of those we dig out of the ground. We have to use less steel, half of which is going into construction and 16 percent of which is going into cars, which are 70 percent steel by weight. 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.

And notwithstanding my boilerplate comment here, this is a great demonstration of how it should be done, from start to finish.