Last week's webinar, What does the journey to fossil-free steel look like? – presented by global technology leader ABB, featured experts from steelmaker SSAB, the Association for Iron & Steel Technology, and ABB, diving into three main topics: challenges steelmaking currently presents, global trends and technological innovations, and actions steel manufacturers can take to achieve a net zero carbon footprint.
The future of steelmaking
Thomas Hörnfeldt, vice president sustainable business, SSAB, kicked off the event with a statement on SSAB's vision for the future of steelmaking, which he said will include a 'movement away from the carbon and coke used in the traditional blast furnace', instead, exposing iron ore to hydrogen gas. '' This means that the oxygen in the iron ore will not move to carbon forming CO2, but [will] rather move to hydrogen, forming H2O as a byproduct.'' So far, added Hörnfeldt, SSAB has delivered 'some 7.8kt of fossil free steel to selected customers and partners and we're planning to do this on a commercial scale.'
Ron Ashburn, executive director of the Association for Iron and Steel Technology, commented that his vision for the future of steelmaking would be retiring the literal vision of a smokestack industry. ''I wouldn't be surprised, at least in the Western world, to hear things like; 'Well, isn't that an obsolete material? I think they probably use outdated technology, bad for the environment, and it's unsafe.' That's not the vision we want, right? So that's absolutely something we've got to look to.''
Frederik Esterhuizen, global business line manager for ABB’s metals industry portfolio, ABB Process Industries, referred to the obstacles going forward, which he said 'could all be mitigated with baby steps... doing certain changes on the energy consumption, certain changes along the line of the digital portfolio.' ''We can integrate the existing assets to try and optimize the usage of them as well and then ultimately get to that stage where you can eliminate the oxygen furnaces and just work with the electric arc furnaces and other potential new technologies.''
According to Ashburn, there are four main pillars representing the challenges to the steel industry; carbon capture and utilization, the use of low/zero-carbon fuels, hydrogen usage, and electrification. However, Ashburn added that 'there's evolving technologies along those fronts, perhaps further down the timeline, no doubt,' making all the challenges 'very solvable.' Another crucial area, said Ashburn, is 'diplomacy.' Due to the capital expenditure of decarbonized processes, 'diplomacy will become essential' as a way to ensure sustainable progress is made.
For Hörnfeldt, the principle challenges came from the sheer scale of SSAB's HYBRIT initiative (developed with LKAB and Vattenfall), which has required 'blood, sweat, and tears'. ''It's really a huge transformation project. We're not only building the plants for using hydrogen to to make iron and sponge shine, but also as I mentioned that we're going to close down our last blast furnace by 2030 or so, which means that we're also now planning two new large mini mills, one in northern Sweden and one in Northern Finland, that will be fed by an electric arc furnace either based on recycled scrap or on sponge iron. And this is a huge undertaking.''
Drawing on over 100 years of experience, ABB collaborates with metals producers, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and other suppliers to develop process specific and customized solutions that optimize production, improve quality and safety – while driving the transition to autonomous plants and a more circular economy. One of ABB's main focuses is bringing industry partners together, coming up with 'out-of-the-box thinking discussions,' said Esterhuizen. ''How can we collaborate? How can we support this new way you are trying to go in as a supplier; it's really an opportunity and challenge to develop and transform the industry's business models, utilizing ABB’s electrification, automation and digital solutions.''
Responding to a question raised by an attendee, the speakers discussed the trend of the direct reduced iron (DRI) process moving toward the location of the iron ore. ''If they also have the opportunity to leverage high levels of solar power, i.e. Australia and Brazil, do you see this happening? Are steel producers looking to invest their money or their dollars away from rolling mills but moving perhaps more towards the steel source? This is quite a big question. Companies in that arena, I think they already have plans afoot for that type of massive concentration of DRI capacity. And and I also see in North America more DRI coming down with all the resources we have. It just makes good sense,'' said Ashburn.
''One thing that should be pointed out is that with the traditional blast furnace that delivers liquid iron, you better turn that to steel right away before it solidifies. Otherwise you have a bit of a problem. Frankly speaking, we're doing exactly this in Sweden,'' added Hörnfeldt.
On the topic of scrap, Hörnfeldt emphasised the market changes to come; 'if you want to put this very bluntly, we will use our own scrap in the future.' ''Of course, there isn't enough scrap in the world, like we said in the beginning, but this also means that we will be working with pure iron, which means that we can make every grade of steel from iron ore in an electric arc furnace without any fossil fuel emissions.''
Adding to this, Ashburn stated; 'North America had an electrical grid, an infrastructure for electricity; we had a scrap infrastructure really dating back to World War 1 and World War 2,' emphasising that these all developed alongside the evolution of the electric arc furnace. ''We have to find a way to deliver renewable energy to areas that require real production. Every part of the world has its unique advantages.''
''The importance of scrap cannot be forgotten,'' said Hörnfeldt. ''We should use every ounce of scrap that we can find in the world to make new steel, which eventually will turn to scrap, which we will make steel out of again. What makes steel unique compared to many other materials is that once we put recycled scrap in an electric arc furnace and melt it down, we pretty much break the field down to [the] atomic level. We create the virgin material also out the recycled scrap. There is no ageing in recycle steel. That's a wonderful thing.''
For Esterhuizen, ABB's goal lay in helping the customer in terms of the 'transferability of the scrap' and then tracking its movement downstream, to achieve 'complete circularity from where the material was sourced to how it ended up'. This way, Esterhuizen said, 'you have traceability and accountability–which is very important in the scrap control system, as well as following it on with digital solution systems.''
Ashburn concluded the event with a statement on the positive impacts of greening steel; 'decarbonization for steel will develop our markets, EVs, green energy. They will make us more attractive to our workforce in the future, and they're going to improve the planet. I I call that the trifecta. Let's have steel be a leader. Let's have steel be a problem solver.''
A live recording of the event can be found here.