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Sustainable steel is coming

Steel is one of the key materials that makes modern life, but making it is among the dirtiest businesses in the world when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

The production of steel accounts for about 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from the United Nations, and it’s a business that is notoriously hard to clean up.

But since 2017 some of the world’s largest manufacturers of metal have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into attempts to make steel manufacturing more sustainable.

“Steel is a very important material for modern society. It has been made since a long time back from iron ore, using coal,” Martin Pei, chief technical officer at SSAB, a Swedish company at the forefront of these efforts, told The Financial Times earlier this year. “If we really want to contribute to realizing the climate goals set in the Paris agreement, then there’s a quite widespread consensus that only doing further efficiency improvements in the blast furnace will not be enough. Breakthrough technologies are needed urgently.”

Some companies, like the Massachusetts-based company Boston Metal have invented entirely new ways of creating steel, while in Europe several projects are underway to harness renewable energy and emission-free hydrogen to create sustainable steel.

Among them is the Swedish company, H2 Green Steel. Using the massive hydropower resources that have helped their country generate over half of its energy supply from renewable power, H2 Green Steel intends to build a hydrogen conversion facility to fuel its steel-making operations.

Using the same thesis that helped turn the battery company Northvolt into a business taking $14 billion orders from massive car companies like Volkswagen, H2 Green Steel is looking to build one of the largest steel manufacturing plants to serve European car makers.

Some of the richest families in Sweden, including the wealth behind companies like Maersk shipping empire, IKEA’s sprawling global furniture business, and high-tech consumer companies like Spotify’s founder, Daniel Ek, have poured over $100 million into the business.

“We’ve seen a tremendous interest, both from the industry, future customers and long-term investors, in our mission to bring down co2-emissions to zero in the steel industry,” said H2 Green Steel chief executive, Henrik Henriksson in a statement. “Investors all over Europe understand that the climate crisis is the biggest challenge of our time and that a transformation of the industry is necessary.”

Based in Boden, Sweden, the H2 Green Steel development will include a “giga-scale” green hydrogen plant as part of an integrated steel production facility that’s aiming to produce 5 million tons of steel by 2030. Production is set to begin by 2024.

The company’s sustainable steel isn’t the only green metal product aiming to hit the market in the next decade. Three other companies — another in Sweden and two in Austria are angling to take a bite out of H2 Green’s green business.

They include Hybrit, another Swedish project that’s a collaboration between the utility Vattenfall, the steelmaker SSAB, and iron ore miner LKAB. Their intended project could hoover up as much as a third of Sweden’s current energy supply, which might leave H2 Green a bit in the … dark?

And a few thousand kilometers away, in Austria, Voestalpine, a collaboration between massive Austrian and German industrial and energy companies, has already flipped the switch on their green Hydrogen facility.

Meanwhile, America’s Boston Metal is changing the manufacturing process completely, as Grist reported earlier this year.

Most steel — about 70 percent — is made in huge, hot furnaces, where temperatures can reach 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Coke, a purified version of coal, is heated in those furnaces with a combination of iron oxide and limestone before being injected with oxygen to reduce carbon and remove impurities.

The only other method for making steel these days is to take scrap metal and melt it down in electrical furnaces that can reach temperatures of around 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. These electric arc furnaces use whatever power source is available from utility grids supplying the energy for operations.

Boston Metal’s approach, which has gotten backing from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and the megalithic multinational mining giant BHP, makes steel completely differently.

The company uses a metal cylinder known as an electrolytic cell to feed electricity through a tube made from a specific alloy. The electric current heats up a liquid solution made from iron oxide and other metallic minerals and separates the solution into oxygen and liquid iron. The oxygen bubbles up and the steel collects and cools at the bottom.

Initially developed by scientists at MIT with support from NASA and the American Iron and Steel Institute, Boston Metal was incorporated in 2012 by Professors Antoine Allanore, Donald R. Sadoway and Dr. Jim Yurko.

The following year, the three men demonstrated that the process could produce emissions-free steel.

“The cell will spit out a very pure iron, where you can add the other elements to get your high-quality steel,” Chief executive Tadeu Carneiro told the FT earlier this year. “If we have the cost of electricity at the same level that the aluminum manufacturers have today, which is $15 to $35 dollars per megawatt-hour, we will be competitive without a carbon tax… This really will change the world.”


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