A closer look at the world’s first fossil-fuel-free steel and how it is made
On Aug 18, 2021, the Swedish fossil fuel-free steel venture HYBRIT announced that it had delivered the world’s first fossil-fuel-free steel to the truck manufacturing company Volvo AB. Volvo AB says that it will begin production using the material from 2026.
This steel venture produced the world’s first fossil-fuel-free steel and is the result of a collaboration of Swedish steelaker SSAB, mining company LKAB and power company Vattenfall. The HYBRIT venture started in 2016 and, by 2020, the companies began test operations in their pilot plant in northern Sweden.
Steel production is one of the main realms of environmental concern today. The steel industry accounts for 7% of total global carbon dioxide emissions. Using HYBRIT technology, SSAB can reduce Sweden’s total carbon dioxide emissions by 10%. Let’s examine the process of steel production using HYBRIT technology and what fossil-fuel-free steel production means for the future.
How is steel produced and why is fossil fuel-free production different?
Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon. The first step in making steel is to extract iron by removing oxygen from iron ore. Conventionally, this process is carried out in blast furnaces using coal or coke. The blast furnace technique used in the production of steel is bad for the environment. The use of coke in steel production generates carcinogenic pollutants such as naphthalene.
However, the HYBRIT process produces steel using hydrogen gas and fossil-fuel-free electricity. The HYBRIT process uses electrolysis (passing electric current through water) to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen produced from the process is then used to reduce the iron ore.
To do so, the iron ore is heated in the presence of hydrogen at temperatures below the melting point of iron (below 1200 °C or 2190 °F). When hydrogen comes in contact with the iron ore, it extracts oxygen from the ore, producing iron and water vapor.
This new process is called the direct reduction of iron ore. It creates Direct Reduced Iron (DRI), also known as sponge iron. DRI is combined with recycled scrap to form steel.
The future of steel production
“The candle holder, with its softly pleated rays beaming out from the candle, symbolizes the light at the end of the tunnel. It is a symbol of hope. It truly is… a piece of the future,” says Lena Bergström, the designer of the first object ever made from fossil fuel-free steel (shown above).
The process of fossil-fuel-free steel production is an expensive endeavor. A pre-feasibility study conducted by the companies behind HYBRIT says that the process would result in a 20-30% increase in the cost of producing crude steel.
Despite the added expenditure, the companies are hopeful about the future of the technology. In an announcement on August 18, SAAB said that the delivery of the fossil-fuel-free steel to Volvo is “an important step on the way to a completely fossil-free value chain for iron and steelmaking.”
A pilot hydrogen storage facility is in the works in Svartöberge, Sweden. The facility is expected to become operational between 2022 and 2024. The 100 cubic meters storage facility will cost over SKR250 million (US$29 million). The funds for this project will be provided by the three collaborators and the Swedish Energy Agency (SEA).
Header image courtesy of SAAB