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Steel Horizons: Navigating the Future of Sustainability and Innovation in Our Industry

Materials.Business Newsletter ⚙️ December 05th, 2023



As we navigate the evolving landscape of the steel industry, several trends and future initiatives shape its trajectory toward sustainability and innovation. In response to the call for more sustainable practices, the steel industry is increasingly embracing the principles of the circular economy. Efforts focus on maximizing recycling, extending product life cycles, and minimizing waste generation. This shift aligns with global sustainability goals and reduces the industry's overall environmental footprint.

Hydrogen is emerging as a key player in the quest for cleaner steel production. Initiatives like the use of hydrogen in the reduction of iron ore and the exploration of green hydrogen produced through electrolysis powered by renewable sources signify a shift towards low-carbon and even carbon-neutral steelmaking. The Hybrit project is a notable example, combining hydrogen and natural gas in the pursuit of fossil-free sponge iron.

Understanding the Magnitude: Figures from 2019 and Before In 2019, CO2 emissions per capita worldwide stood at 4.18 tons, contributing to a total of 34,000 million tons of global CO2 emissions. Fossil fuels, particularly coal (39.5%), oil (34.1%), and gas (18.4%), played a dominant role in this scenario. The manufacturing sector, including steel production, accounted for over 7% of global CO2 emissions (Global Carbon Project). This comes with significant environmental burdens, including extensive raw material consumption, such as 3,332 million tons of iron ore in 2017, and the generation of millions of tons of by-products and waste (EU Reference Reports).
The Legacy of Our Ancestors: The Evolution of Steelmaking Our journey to modern steelmaking began millennia ago, with the Iron Age emerging in regions like the Asiatic Southeast and the Mediterranean. Over centuries, from empirical knowledge and the use of wood and charcoal, we advanced through various furnace technologies, arriving at the blast furnace during the 19th century. The Bessemer process marked a pivotal moment, propelling us into the steel era of the First Industrial Revolution. Today, we comprehend the intricate thermodynamics and kinetics underlying steel production, primarily the reduction of iron oxide by carbon monoxide (Collectionscanada).
Expectations and Innovations: Shaping the Future of Steelmaking The steel industry, a significant emitter of greenhouse gases, is facing a clarion call for a total commitment to mitigating its environmental impact while ensuring rational resource utilization and improving socio-economic development. The push for a carbon-neutral (or even negative) steelmaking process is underway, exploring avenues such as electrification and alternative reduction reactions. Initiatives encompass raw materials efficiency, emission reduction strategies, and the development of new alloys with enhanced properties. Efforts also extend to alternative sources, such as seabed deposits and lunar mining (McKinsey).
Innovative Pathways: Towards a Sustainable Future
Steelmakers are intensifying efforts to decarbonize their processes. Strategies include improving blast furnace efficiency, exploring biomass as a reductant, and implementing carbon capture and usage. Furthermore, there's a growing focus on transitioning to electric arc furnaces, direct reduction using hydrogen, and other processes that significantly reduce or eliminate carbon emissions.
Research initiatives like the Hybrit project, a collaboration between SSAB, LKAB, and Vattenfall, aim to produce fossil-free sponge iron using hydrogen and natural gas. A pioneering effort led by Prof. Philip de Goey in the Netherlands explores the combustion of metal powders, marking a significant step with the world's first industrial combustion plant driven by iron powder (Hybrit Development).
The path toward a sustainable future for the steel industry is a dynamic one, filled with challenges and opportunities. As innovation accelerates, so does the promise of more sustainable, better, and cheaper steel, reflecting a socially responsible and prestigious industry. Remember, the protection of materials and equipment is not just good practice; it's good business (Carlos A.)!

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