Promising hydrogen project to clean up the steel industry
Swedish steel company SSAB cooperates with mining company LKAB and energy company Vattenfall to produce steel with hydrogen instead of coal. As a result, CO2 emissions would decrease dramatically. This could revolutionize one of the most polluting industries in Europe.
Next month, the Hybrit pilot plant should be ready for use. Hybrit stands for Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology. It processes iron ore in a revolutionary way.
Traditionally, iron ore is combined with coke in a blast furnace. Due to the hot combustion gases, the iron melts, but a lot of CO2 is also released. At Hybrit, the iron oxide is converted into iron in solid form using hydrogen. This can then be melted.
So, the Swedes extract the oxygen from the pellets with hydrogen instead of coke. This prevents CO2 formation. The oxygen does not stick to carbon, but hydrogen and, therefore, becomes water. It is the start of a new process to make steel.
There is a great need to reduce CO2 emissions. The Paris Climate Agreement and the rise in the price of emissions threaten the European steel sector. Moreover, the sector suffers from high purchase and low selling prices. There is overcapacity, and competitors from China, among others, are flooding the market.
Cleaner steel would give Europe a unique product. Several companies are working on it. Tata Steel in IJmuiden, for example, wants to produce cleaner steel with its HIsarna project. This stores a large proportion of its emissions in empty gas fields under the North Sea. ArcelorMittal is turning its CO2 into biofuel.
The Swedes choose “the green hydrogen route made from electricity from renewable sources,” says CTO of SSAB Martin Pei, initiator of Hybrit. “This is logical, because it is cheaper to produce in Scandinavia than in the Netherlands, for example. There is more green electricity in Sweden, partly thanks to the numerous hydroelectric power stations.”
The Hybrit test facility should start producing small quantities from autumn onward. So far, €134 million have already been invested, and a lot more money is needed. The next step is a demonstration plant, which should be ready in 2025. One year later, the fossil-free steel should actually be on the market. And by 2045, all SSAB plants must use the technology.
The European Commission also relies on the Swedes. At the beginning of July, Frans Timmermans stated that hydrogen is necessary for a climate-neutral world. Hybrit is often cited as an example. The expectation is that Sweden can reduce CO2 emissions by 10%, and Finland by 7%.
Pei says to definitely notice a ‘Timmermans effect’. There is more interest. “Within the sector and the European Commission, the project was, of course, already known. But there has been an extreme increase in attention.”
Chances of success
It is not the industry’s first attempt to produce steel with less CO2 emissions. Already in 2004, after the Kyoto agreement, the European steel industry launched a project aimed at reducing CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050.
Whether Hybrit will succeed does not depend on the technology, thinks Professor Bo Bjorkman, who is working on the project. “The question is not whether it will work. Reducing emissions with hydrogen is feasible. But there are technical challenges that play a role, such as making a plant that is safe enough. Or sufficient electricity and where it comes from. The process surrounding technology is the biggest challenge. And it’s about money, what’s the market like, is there a price advantage for sustainable steel?”
Enough hydrogen capacity?
Also, hydrogen is now mentioned as a solution for everything: to make steel from, to run cars… Will it be possible to store enough hydrogen for all applications?
Mikael Nordlander, who works in the R&D department of energy supplier Vattenfall, thinks so. Due to the falling costs of wind and solar energy, the application of green hydrogen will also become economically viable for other processes, he says. In addition to the pilot plant, the companies behind Hybrit also want to start a trial with the underground storage of hydrogen next year.
In the Netherlands, natural gas is still mostly used for the production of hydrogen. Green hydrogen depends on wind and solar energy, which is still very expensive here. Tata Steel does not expect to be able to produce with green hydrogen before 2040.