The Role Of Global Steel In the Green Revolution

As one of the world’s largest recyclers and an essential core material of most modern infrastructure, it’s only natural that steel should be the backbone of the world wide effort to go green in many ways.  Of course, the steel industry is also responsible for an estimated 9% of global carbon emissions since fuel, coke, and other essential aspects of current steel producing methods are significant sources of carbon emissions.  

This presents a unique opportunity for innovation towards “green steel” that can become the standard for environmentally sustainable manufacturing.  As borderline impossible as this looks today, there are a lot of promising developments coming down the line that make this lofty goal seem a lot more plausible.

The Steel Industry’s Advantages
The steel industry is the largest recycler on the planet, with more than 50-60% of steel produced coming from recycled steel.  In theory, this means our reliance on mining and other dirty industries could be quite low. If we can find solutions to energy that are clean and don’t require high-carbon ingredients like coke, or require far less, we can seriously cut down on our net carbon output.

Steel also has a history of incremental and generational technological developments that become implemented very gradually.  That history of adopting new technologies will serve the industry well as new breakthroughs become available on the open market.  As an engineering and supply firm supporting the steel industry, FRC Global will continue to investigate, test, and offer these technologies.  For example, we’re the only firm in the Western Hemisphere offering TKE-HTT™ systems that cut fuel usage in the systems they’re installed in by 50% or more.

Steel is also a totally essential industry to build the renewable energy infrastructure of the future, from upgrading power grids with more and better transformer substations and high capacity lines to building wind turbines and support systems for solar panels or central tower solar power plants, steel is the material of choice for economically viable, structurally sound construction.  Unlike many other “dirty” industries, like coal mining, there’s no possibility that steel will be “left behind” in the green revolution.  Green steel isn’t just a possibility, it is an inevitability.

The Steel Industry’s Disadvantages
The major difficulty of lowering greenhouse emissions from the steel industry comes from the very high energy requirements of smelting steel.  Even existing electrical systems that could technically be adapted to purely green power sources, like EAFs (Electric Arc Furnaces), require far more energy than renewable energy can currently provide and involve other carbon intensive materials.  One estimate is that full implementation of electrical smelting will require 3 terawatts of renewable energy production.  Current global green energy production is less than half that.  

The bright side of this incredible need for new and greater energy infrastructure is that steel will be integral to achieving the same goals seen as prerequisites for achieving green smelting.  So even as the need to transition becomes more urgent, this very need should help to provide the fiscal support such a transition requires.  It has been suggested that it will be necessary to provide further economic incentives to steel manufacturers to get the transition to move quickly enough.  This would be helpful, especially to keep the steel industry from monopolization by the companies able to transition without such assistance.

The Proposed Solutions
As with all other elements of the green revolution, there are many people, investors, and institutions trying to solve the problems steel faces in fully embracing the green revolution.  There are also some shorter term options being explored as less costly interim measures.

Natural Gas For CO2 Reductions

The potential for natural gas to reduce CO2 is not really news.  It’s been discussed in many industries over the last 15 years.  Though this an admitted half-measure, it is estimated that switching over to natural gas may reduce emissions by up to 60% even if it’s the only step being taken. It should also be a relatively inexpensive adjustment to plants for producers with ready access to natural gas.  

That said, investing in infrastructure that delays the problem by a decade or two only makes sense when it’s cost effective.  If natural gas infrastructure isn't already available, or near to availability, it likely won’t make much sense to invest heavily in this option. That said, plants in regions where natural gas is affordable are having good success reducing their emissions with this strategy.  Natural gas is also much more expensive than coal in North American and European markets, especially given the quantities needed.  

Hydrogen Fuel
There has been a lot of talk about Hydrogen being the fuel of the future.  You may remember that Arnold Schwartzenager had a hydrogen hummer made during his tenure as governor of California.  Despite the PR, Hydrogen still relies on electrolysis to electrically separate the Oxygen and Hydrogen atoms in water.  That electricity could in theory be green, but this adds a substantial electrical requirement to the production chain and adds a lot of waste to the manufacturing process.  This inherent weakness in Hydrogen as a fuel is what has held it back from fulfilling the various goals set before it.

That said, there are three steel plants planned for Sweden.  Seeing how they succeed or fail may determine a great deal for steel in the next decades.  The complexity of powering the green production of hydrogen, transporting it to steel plants, and converting the steel plants to use hydrogen fuel is daunting, to say the least.  However, with the strong backing of various corporate entities and research from organizations like BloombergNEF, Hydrogen may yet become the new zeitgeist of the steel industry.

Molten Oxide Electrolysis
A new technology under development at MIT, molten oxide electrolysis is an electrical process that separates oxygen from iron ore and produces only O2 as a byproduct emission.  This faces the same main challenge as Hydrogen in terms of the need for a massive amount of green electricity in order to function in a carbon neutral way.  However, it has the advantage that it doesn’t require new delivery infrastructure or additional production steps as Hydrogen does. 

While this process hasn’t been implemented at a commercial scale, it has seen significant success in laboratory settings and might be the solution steel has been looking for.  The big disadvantage for steel producers is that it appears that equipping plants with this technology will require significant renovations and changes.  Keep an eye on Boston Metal’s project to bring this technology to market for commercial steel production in the next 2 to 3 years.


FRC Global’s Role
At FRC Global, we’re focused on the bleeding edge of steel production technologies as well as sourcing and offering the best existing technologies for conventional steel and other metal industries.  We want to be your partner for all the coming changes to the steel industry.  In the meantime, we will continue to monitor the latest industry information to keep you informed and ready for what’s to come.

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