A red hot steel slab passes through a rolling machine inside the hot strip mill unit at the Rourkela Steel Plant in Odisha, India, on Friday, June 21, 2019. Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg/Getty ImagesA red hot steel slab passes through a rolling machine inside the hot strip mill unit at the Rourkela Steel Plant in Odisha, India, on Friday, June 21, 2019. Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg/Getty Images

In northern Sweden, the world’s first large-scale green steel project, led by H2 Green Steel, is set to revolutionize the steel industry by using green hydrogen instead of coal, aiming to cut carbon pollution by 95% and produce 5 million metric tons of green steel by 2030

🔭 The context: Steel production, responsible for 7-9% of global carbon emissions, heavily relies on coal
• New technologies like green hydrogen and electric arc furnaces are emerging as alternatives, but the transition is slow, and new coal-powered plants continue to be approved globally

🌍 Why it matters for the planet: Decarbonizing steel is crucial for reducing industrial carbon emissions
• Green steel technology, though expensive and energy-intensive, offers a significant reduction in carbon pollution, essential for meeting global climate targets

On a strip of land in northern Sweden, not far from the Arctic Circle, a new facility is taking shape which could help revolutionize one of the planet’s dirtiest industries: steelmaking.

By 2026, if all goes to plan, the site just outside Boden will be filled with industrial buildings painted white, silver and black – colors to reflect the region’s mountains and lakes – and huge, brick-red towers.

This complex will be world’s first large-scale “green steel” project, according to H2 Green Steel, the Swedish company behind the multi-billion-dollar mill.

Instead of burning coal, it will use “green hydrogen” produced with renewable electricity. The company says its process will cut carbon pollution by 95% compared to traditional steelmaking, and is aiming to produce 5 million metric tons of green steel by 2030.

It will mark another step toward overhauling the steel sector, but the path to cleaning up this polluting industry is a challenging one.

Steel is one of the world’s most commonly used materials, critical for everything from buildings, bridges, cars and fridges to renewable energy infrastructure like wind turbines. The world consumes a huge amount – nearly 2 billion metric tons each year.

 

The problem is steelmaking is incredibly energy-hungry and remains heavily reliant on coal, the most polluting fossil fuel. The industry accounts for between 7% to 9% of global carbon pollution, and its impact looks set to worsen, with demand projected to jump 30% by 2050.

The industry is under huge pressure to clean itself up. Many hopes are pinned on new technologies, with a particular focus on replacing coal with green hydrogen.

An excavator on a stockpile of coal at the Tata Steel plant in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.

While projects like H2 Green Steel show momentum is growing, experts say the pace is far too slow.

New coal-powered steel plants are still being approved and developed globally, potentially locking in decades more emissions, even as the world scrambles to avoid catastrophic climate change.

“The sector is not on track,” said Mohamed Atouife, a researcher Princeton University who specializes in the use of green hydrogen in heavy industry.

A red hot steel slab passes through a rolling machine inside the hot strip mill unit at the Rourkela Steel Plant in Odisha, India, on Friday, June 21, 2019. 

A dirty industry

Steelmaking is carbon-intensive at every stage, starting with mining raw iron ore, mostly hauled by diesel-powered trucks.

The most climate-polluting part, however, is turning this iron ore into steel.

Globally, most steel is produced using blast furnaces heated to very high temperatures by burning coal. Iron ore is mixed with coke — coal that has been heated up to remove impurities — and dumped into the top of a blast furnace to produce molten iron, which is then processed into steel.

There is another greener way of making steel that’s taking root: the electric arc furnace.

This is how about 70% of steel is made in the US, using electricity to melt down metal to make steel. Electric arc furnaces can be fed with 100% scrap steel, compared to blast furnaces which can usually cope with around 30% scrap.

This method produces less planet-heating pollution, around 78% fewer emissions than steel made with blast furnaces, according to one study commissioned by a steel industry group.

An electric arc furnace at the NLMK Indiana facility in Portage, Indiana, US, on Friday, April 13, 2018.

But how climate-friendly the process is depends on the electricity that powers it being green, too.

There is also a limit on how much scrap steel is available, “so we have to also use other low carbon pathways, such as clean hydrogen,” Atouife said.

Green hydrogen

The push to replace coal — currently the fastest and cheapest way to produce steel — with green hydrogen is gaining ground.

Green hydrogen is produced by splitting water molecules in a process fueled by renewable energy. To make green steel, this clean hydrogen is used to reduce iron ore, which is then melted along with scrap steel in an electric arc furnace.

Where using coal pumps out carbon pollution, hydrogen produces only water vapor.

 

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