Could carbon-free steel play a vital role in helping us reach carbon neutrality?

What is carbon-free steel?
Carbon-free steel is steel manufactured without carbon and coke which are the main
ingredients used in the traditional manufacturing process. Carbon and coke are two critical contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the production of steel. Sweden has recently produced the world’s first shipment of carbon-free steel. Its characteristics are just like traditional steel but without the use of fossil fuels meaning it is far better for the planet.
The steel was produced in Sweden as a joint venture called HYBRIT consisting of three companies. Each of the three companies own one-third of this ‘collaboration’ company. The idea behind the project is to help reduce Sweden and Finland’s overall annual greenhouse gas emissions and to help decarbonize the world. Currently, 31% of the annual 51 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions come from the manufacturing industry which includes the manufacture of steel. If we can slice a large portion of that off with no emissions from steel manufacturing, it will go a long way towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

How much better is carbon-free steel to its traditional counterparts?
Research by Carbon Brief showed that 553 traditional steel manufacturing plants across the globe contribute 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions alone each year. This will only grow as the IEA (International Energy Agency) predicts that steel production will jump by a third by 2050. With carbon-free steel, we have the potential to save millions upon billions of greenhouse gas emissions over the course of the upcoming years greatly lowering the speed at which climate change hits us, while also lowering the overall impact it may have. Conventional steel produces a by-product dangerous to human and animal health whereas the carbon-free model actually produces water or water vapour as a by-product, potentially helping purify the surrounding air. If carbon-free steel soon becomes mainstream, we could see the industry having a neutral or even positive impact on the environment. This would be beneficial given the impact conventional steel has had since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

How is carbon-free steel manufactured?
Carbon-free steel is made using ‘Hydrogen Breakthrough Iron Technology’ hence why the name of the joint venture is HYBRIT. This technology replaces fossil fuels in the manufacturing process using green hydrogen instead of carbon and coke to create iron. Once the process is complete, the iron is used to create steel slabs. By replacing coke and carbon in the process of manufacturing, this helps eliminate the greenhouse gas emissions as these two important ingredients are also the two main culprits of the large environmental footprint left behind when making steel.

When will carbon-free steel be on the market and in mass production?
HYBRIT believe they can start industrial production of their new product by 2026. However, a race appears to be emerging on who can start producing carbon-free steel to an industrial scale, with another company called H2 Green Steel who believe it can begin as early as 2024.
This isn’t a two-team race though, with a company in India that has a new version of carbon-free steel using what it calls the ‘HIsarna process’ and a fourth company already well established as China’s biggest steelmaker who is exploring hydrogen technology to see how they can also reduce the impact their massive steel industry has.

Volvo AB’s hopes for a less environmentally damaging future:
HYBRIT’s first delivery of their carbon-free steel product was shipped to Swedish car and truck maker Volvo AB. Volvo recently commented ‘this steel will be used for testing purposes and may be used in a concept car’. They also added that they aim to be the first car manufacturer to use carbon-free steel in their production models as well. According to Volvo, 20% of all emissions that come from manufacturing their electric cars are caused by steel alone. So, looking into carbon-free steel will be crucial for limiting their environmental impact as the Swedish car and truck manufacturer’s ambition is only to produce fully electric cars by 2030.

How carbon-free steel could make infrastructure far more sustainable:
As mentioned before, 31% of the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions produced annually come from the manufacturing industry with an incredibly large portion of that from steel, iron and concrete. In fact, about one-third of the 31% of emissions comes from steel, iron and concrete. With green solutions for concrete, iron and now steel, we have the potential to drastically reduce the impact the construction industry has in eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions from the main materials used for construction of buildings, roads, railway tracks, coal-fired plants, electricity sub-stations, nuclear power plants, utility services, etc. This is around 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) potentially saved annually.

Let’s also not forget, as the human population increases, so too will the demand for these products in the manufacturing of transportation, buildings, etc. A report by the European Parliament said that from now to 2070, we will see an 87% rise in flat steel production for car manufacturing and the demand for long steel products to increase by 30% for infrastructure. So, while we currently have the potential to save around 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the amount of CO2 saved could greatly increase by 2070 as the demand for steel continues to climb.

Structures like this
(Melbourne Cricket Ground) used ridiculous amounts of steel and concrete for the construction, which today, could be constructed, producing zero greenhouse gas emissions. All thanks to carbon-free steel.

What companies will likely purchase carbon-free steel?
As we know, Volvo has already purchased a small portion of carbon-free steel. However, very recently Mercedes Benz also joined in purchasing carbon-free steel from the same producer. Currently, the battle between car manufactures is to see who can produce the best electric cars. However, soon it may be the next competition of who can produce the ultimate green car with completely carbon-free materials. With Mercedes Benz and Volvo competing in this space, we are likely to see all car manufacturers move towards this steel model soon as they won’t want to be left behind. Other than vehicles, we will most likely see infrastructure companies also transition to this new model of steel as long as it shows the same characteristics as traditional steel e.g. strength, resistance to weather. Basically, all companies that use/require steel in their products/services will move to the carbon-free model as sustainable materials are becoming almost necessary for hitting greenhouse gas emission targets set out by countries.

How much will carbon-free steel cost when first placed on the market?
While there isn’t an exact figure to show the potential costs, experts believe that the overall cost of this new model of steel will be 5% to 24% more expensive than conventional steel. While this will probably mean it is out of reach for most businesses/companies for the short term, the price will obviously decrease over time with new technology and the efficiency of production also increasing. One reason that this new version of steel will cost considerably more, is because it relies heavily on hydrogen for production and currently hydrogen can be very hard to produce and sometimes even harder to transport due to its very low volumetric energy density. If the cost to produce and transport hydrogen can decrease, it will certainly play a big part in lowering the cost to make the carbon-free steel and the final cost for consumers.

Can carbon-free steel compete with the traditional steel industry?
Oxford Economics found that the steel industry worldwide sold 2.5 trillion dollars worth of products and generated $677 billion AUD ($500 billion USD) in 2017. Currently, it is hard to measure/predict where exactly carbon-free steel will be and how much it will be worth in the upcoming years, but with car manufacturers like Volvo and Mercedes Benz already joining the party, it’s a very good start. Nations such as Europe have also mentioned that they hope to significantly cut down on annual emissions by using green steel. While carbon-free steel is guaranteed to take some time before getting remotely close to the level of conventional steel, there is still a very likely chance the carbon-free model will take over, because the only way for countries to hit their climate targets set out by the Paris Agreement, is to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. This means a fossil fuel-free alternative must be used for steel.

If carbon-free steel can get to industrial scaled production levels, then we are almost
guaranteed a large reduction in annual emissions, most likely leading to a decrease in
the potential damage caused by climate change. With this new model of metal, the industries of manufacturing, infrastructure and more will have the capabilities to continue to build/make products and services that continue to provide us with the benefits we love and need while having a neutral effect on the planet. The steel industry alone produces millions upon billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions and we now have the ability to remove all damage completely and create a far more sustainable lifestyle for all of us.
A lifestyle that benefits us and everything else we know that lives on this planet.

Released on the 17th of September 2021. -KJDJ

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