Carbon-free steel and its role in helping 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 resemble that of traditional steel but without the use of fossil fuels making it a suitable, environmentally-sound replacement for traditional steel.

The steel was produced in Sweden as a joint venture called “HYBRIT” consisting of three companies. Each of the three companies owns 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 industry. Currently, 31% of the annual 51 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions come from the manufacturing industry; including the manufacture of steel.

How much better is carbon-free steel?
Research by Carbon Brief revealed that 553 steel manufacturing plants across the globe contribute to 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions 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, quite literally, billions of emissions over the coming years – greatly lowering the speed and potential impacts of climate change.

Conventional steel produces a by-product dangerous to human and animal health, whereas, the carbon-free alternative produces water or water vapour as a by-product, potentially helping purify the surrounding air. There is the potential (though in the distant future) that if carbon-free steel were mainstream, the industry could have a beneficial impact on air quality – at the very least.

How is carbon-free steel manufactured?
Carbon-free steel is made using “Hydrogen Breakthrough Iron Technology”, hence the name of the joint venture HYBRIT. This technology replaces fossil fuels in the manufacturing process by using green hydrogen instead of carbon and coke to create iron. Once the process is complete, the iron is used to create steel slabs. Replacing coke and carbon in the process of manufacturing, helps eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.

Is carbon-free steel on the market?
HYBRIT believe they can begin industrial production by 2026. However, a race appears to be emerging with another company called H2 Green Steel which believes it can begin as early as 2024. Another company, this time in India, has a new model of carbon-free steel using what it calls the “HIsarna process”. Moreover, China’s biggest steelmaker is exploring hydrogen technology to investigate its potential application in the coming years.

Volvo’s hopes for a green future:
HYBRIT’s first delivery of their carbon-free steel product was shipped to Swedish car and truck maker Volvo. According to Volvo, “this steel will be used for testing purposes and may be used in a concept car.” They added that their aim is 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 further reducing their environmental impact.

A sustainable future in infrastructure:
As mentioned before, 31% of the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions produced annually come from the manufacturing industry; most of which from steel, iron and concrete. In fact, about 1/3 of the 31% of emissions comes from steel, iron and concrete. With green solutions for concrete, iron and now steel, the potential for carbon-neutrality throughout the industry is becoming ever more achievable.

Let’s 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, flat steel demand will rise by 87% for car manufacturing, and the demand for long steel products to increase by 30% for infrastructure. A carbon-neutral future can be made possible with carbon-free steel.

Who will purchase carbon-free steel?
As we know, Volvo has already purchased carbon-free steel. However, very recently Mercedes Benz also purchased carbon-free steel from the same producer. With Mercedes Benz and Volvo competing in this space, we are likely to see all car manufacturers move towards this steel model soon. Other than vehicles, infrastructure companies will also transition to this new model of steel as long as it demonstrates the same characteristics as traditional steel (e.g. strength, resistance to weather). All companies that use/require steel in their products/services will move to the carbon-free model as sustainable materials are becoming necessary for hitting environmental targets set out by countries and industries.

How much will carbon-free steel cost?
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. Whilst this “green premium” will probably mean it is out of reach for most businesses/companies for the short term, the price will obviously decline over time with new technology and efficient production. A reason for the premium cost is because it relies on hydrogen for production which can be difficult to produce and sometimes even harder to transport due to its low volumetric energy density.

Competing 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 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 in on trials, it’s a start. Nations such as Europe seek to significantly cut down on annual emissions by using green steel in the coming years as well. In the end, the only way for countries to hit their climate targets set out by the Paris Agreement (besides offsetting), is to reach net-zero by 2050. This means a carbon-neutral alternative must be found for steel.

With this new model of steel, the industries of manufacturing, infrastructure and more are soon to be on the cusp of an environmental revolution. The steel industry alone produces billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions; all of which can now be avoided. It is up to governments and the public to push for incentives on carbon-free steel whilst stamping out the environmental and social implications of the traditional steel industry. As climate change becomes an ever-increasing threat, this should be seen as nothing more than an environmental imperative.

Released on the 17th of September 2021. -KJDJ
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