Volvo Plans to Build Trucks from 'Fossil-Free' Steel

Production of prototype vehicles and components are slated to start this year.

truck driving down the road

Volvo Group

When I wrote about Polestar’s plans for achieving a genuinely carbon neutral car by 2030 — while avoiding tree-planting offsets — I noted it wasn’t entirely clear how the Swedish electric automaker would achieve this feat. Commenter FreedomEV was a little blunter in their assessment: 

"Sorry but just not possible in either a metal or 4k lb car. Now if they made composite far lighter ones made from sand and plants and downsized to actual use needs could cut impact 75%."

Certainly, that’s been the challenge with any claim to “sustainable” car manufacturing. While we can replace the fuel source and improve aerodynamics, we still end up with a gigantic box of metal that’s taking up space, clogging up roads, shedding microplastics, and consuming a massive amount of fossil fuels before it ever even drives a mile.

What’s true of private motor vehicles is true of trucks and buses too. So it’s encouraging to see Swedish truck maker Volvo announce that it will start using “fossil-free” steel. Specifically, the initiative involves a collaboration with steel company SSAB to start creating a value chain for steel produced using electricity and hydrogen, rather than the traditional coking coal. The change won’t happen overnight, but the company is planning on producing concept vehicles this year – with smaller-scale serial production next year and scaling up from there. (SSAB’s commercial-scale production won’t start in earnest until 2026, however.)

SSAB and Volvo’s partnership should be viewed as one part of a larger partnership called HYBRIT that includes energy giant Vattenfall and iron-ore producer LKAB. (See Treehugger's more in-depth coverage of this initiative here.) These efforts should have an impact well beyond the car industry too. Once fully transitioned to fossil fuel-free power sources, SSAB estimates their efforts would singlehandedly reduce Sweden’s carbon dioxide emissions by 10% and Finland’s by 7%.

Fossil-free steel is steel produced using HYBRIT technology

On that front, here are some of the key milestones SSAB is publicizing on its website:

  • Powering its Iowa operations with renewables by 2022.
  • Cutting its emissions in Sweden by 25% by as early as 2025.
  • Eliminating most remaining emissions between 2030 and 2040 by converting the blast furnaces in Luleå, Sweden, and Raahe, Finland.
  • Eliminating all remaining fossil fuel sources by 2045.

Given the challenges involved in decarbonizing steel, it’s fair to say that some of these milestones are actually quite ambitious. Yet also, given the speed at which the climate crisis is progressing, the climate version of Occam’s Razor would suggest that we start by using less steel where we can.

However, while private car ownership has plenty of viable alternatives – whether it’s modernizing our bus fleets, working from home, or getting serious about e-bikes and active transportation – the idea of an economy that no longer needs trucks or buses is a little hard to grasp. Yes, we can localize our economies where we can. And yes, we can move some goods to rail. But ultimately, we’re still going to have big machines moving stuff from one place to another. So Martin Lindqvist, President and CEO at SSAB, is right to celebrate his company’s partnership with Volvo:

“We are now taking a giant leap towards an entirely fossil-free value chain all the way to the end customer," said Lindqvist in a statement. "Together with Volvo Group, we will start work on the development and serial production of fossil-free steel products. We will work together with our customers to reduce their climate impact while strengthening their competitiveness. We are constantly looking at how we can become a more comprehensive supplier of fossil-free steel to customers like Volvo. We see a new green revolution emerging.” 

For folks interested in the details, here’s a little more on how HYBRIT is working toward decarbonizing heavy industry: 

Correction: A previous version of this article conflated AB Volvo – a manufacturer of trucks, buses, and other heavy-duty vehicles – with Volvo Cars.