Stepping up in steel sustainability

We already know steel can be endlessly reused, helping to play a part in New Zealand achieving its climate change goals. Every year billions of dollars are spent worldwide on steel research and development. It’s no surprise then, that new technologies that are further helping the steel industry in the fight towards sustainability are presenting themselves.

The world’s first fossil-free steel

One innovation that the global steel industry has seen recently is Swedish steel company SSAB’s partnership with mining company LKAB and the Swedish government to create a new, greener steel-production process.

The first object to be made from the metal was a candle holder – designed by artist Lena Bergström to symbolise “the light at the end of the tunnel”.

Produced using HYBRIT (Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology), the steel production is reduced by 100% fossil-free hydrogen instead of coal and coke. Its first customer was the Volvo Group.

“Industry and especially the steel industry create large emissions but are also an important part of the solution. To drive the transition and become the world’s first fossil-free welfare state, collaboration between business, universities and the public sector is crucial,” says Minister of Trade and Industry of Sweden Ibrahim Baylan.

“The work done by SSAB, LKAB and Vattenfall within the framework of HYBRIT drives the development of the entire industry and is an international model.”

Martin Lindqvist, president and CEO of SSAB says that this first fossil-free steel is not only a breakthrough for SSAB, but for the entire industry worldwide.

“It represents proof that it’s possible to make the transition and significantly reduce the global carbon footprint of the steel industry. We hope that this will inspire others to also want to speed up the green transition,” says Lindqvist.

This development is certainly a crucial milestone and an important step in creating a fossil-free value chain from mine to finished steel.

“We’ve now shown together that it’s possible, and the journey continues. By industrialising this technology in the future and making the transition to the production of sponge iron on an industrial scale, we will enable the steel industry to make the transition. This is the greatest thing we can do together for the climate,” says Jan Moström, president and CEO of LKAB.

This Swedish partnership shows how collaboration can contribute to reducing emissions and building competitiveness for industries.

SSAB, LKAB and Vattenfall created HYBRIT in 2016, with the aim of developing a technology for fossil-free iron- and steelmaking. In June 2021, the three companies were able to showcase the world’s first hydrogen-reduced sponge iron produced at HYBRIT’s pilot plant in Luleå. This first sponge iron has since been used to produce the first steel made with this breakthrough technology.

The goal is to deliver fossil-free steel to the market and demonstrate the technology on an industrial scale as early as 2026. Using HYBRIT technology, SSAB has the potential to reduce Sweden’s total carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 10% and Finland’s by approximately 7%.

Cleaner metals

There have also been recent developments in New Zealand when it comes to sustainability and metals. The University of Canterbury’s Associate Professor Catherine Bishop has been awarded $999,999 over three years to research the production of technology-critical, strategic metals using molten oxide electrolysis.

“The current systems for mining and processing minerals and metals are not always efficient, often polluting, geopolitically insecure and subject to increased social pressure and public protests. New processes are needed to address future supply needs,” reads the research team’s statement for the Endeavour Fund.

Associate Professor Catherine Bishop (centre) and Chemical and Process Engineering postgraduates in the Special Purposes Laboratory. Bishop discusses voltammetry results with Rebecca Newport (left) while Kathryn Ford (right) prepares the ultra-high temperature electrolysis cell for an experiment.
Credit: University of Canterbury

“This is particularly relevant at a time when New Zealand, and the globe, is rapidly scaling up the deployment of renewable energy generation.”

The research is focussed on the processing of tantalum, a hard to process metal often used in wind turbines; and neodymium, a rare earth metal, in the initial proof-of-concept stage.

“The processing routes for these metals are usually multi-stage and involve low efficiency, hazardous solvent and acid treatments, However, we hypothesis that an all-oxide route will mitigate the low efficiency and environmental toll of obtaining these, and related, metals,” says Associate Professor Catherine Bishop.

“Developing a new, carbon-free route to obtaining these critical metals will, with further innovation, be a means to achieving New Zealand’s low carbon goals. Securing access to these metals has also been identified as essential for achieving equitable transition to low carbon goals by the International Energy Agency.”

Bishop says that New Zealand is ideally placed to lead this research area because “we have an abundance of ‘green’ energy to use in metal production and are committed to innovation as a means to meet climate change objectives”.

What will be next?