Researchers from the UK’s University of Birmingham have developed a cost-effective system for the decarbonisation of the steel industry.
- The researchers claim that their solution could lower the UK’s carbon emissions by around 2.9%.
- Despite steelmakers’ willingness to decarbonise their operations, the high costs of nascent technologies have led to their falling behind in the transition to net zero.
- Cost-effective technologies will be vital in delivering the steel industry’s decarbonisation while ensuring that companies can continue their contribution to the global economy.
The University of Birmingham’s Professor Yulong Ding and Dr Harriet Kildahl have devised a closed-loop carbon recycling system that could dramatically reduce the CO2 emissions of steelmaking. Their research, which has been published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, concludes that implementing the system within the UK would lower the country’s emissions by around 2.9%.
Steel industry lags behind in the transition to net zero
Steel production is extremely carbon intensive, relying on metallurgical coke that is made from distilled coal. In steelmaking, coke is used as both a fuel source and a reduction agent in the melting of iron ore. Through this process, the iron is melted under extremely high temperatures to reduce its carbon content and produce the molten steel that much of society’s infrastructure has come to depend on.
According to the International Energy Agency, the iron and steel sectors are responsible for around 2.6 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions each year – approximately 7% of the global total. Furthermore, the steel industry is currently the largest industrial consumer of coal, which provides around 75% of its total energy requirements.
Despite these alarming figures, global steel production has reached an all-time high and is expected to increase by at least a third before 2050. With the steel industry currently lagging behind in its transition to net zero, this expansion has emerged as a significant challenge in addressing the climate crisis.
Ongoing attempts to decarbonise steel
With this in mind, a wide range of solutions is being developed for the decarbonisation of the steelmaking sector. Green hydrogen, for example, has been touted as a means of reducing the industry’s consumption of fossil fuels. Other propositions have included the addition of carbon capture technologies, the development of alternative processes to replace blast furnaces and the adoption of electric arc furnaces that can incorporate recycled scrap metal.
These developments suggest that operators within the steel sector are actively seeking to reduce their carbon footprints, but the majority of their solutions will rely on nascent technologies that are yet to become economically viable at an industrial scale.
As steelmakers face the competing pressures of continuing their operations while simultaneously tackling their impact on the climate, they have called for support and investment in their attempts to decarbonise. The sector’s UK trade unions, for example, filed a motion in 2021 which called for the general council of the Trade Union Congress to actively lobby the government for support and investment in steel’s decarbonisation.
The beginning of 2023 has seen this discussion brought to the table, with trade unions having sent an accusatory letter urging the UK Government to provide greater support for its struggling steel industry. Although an official response is yet to be published, it has been reported that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is preparing to accommodate these demands.
According to these reports, Tata Steel (LSE:TTST) and British Steel are set to receive a combined £600 million in a bail-out agreement tied to their commitment to low-carbon technologies. Although this could enable the two companies to continue their operations in support of the UK’s economy, it is a sizeable cheque that would undoubtedly be felt by the country’s taxpayers as they continue to grapple with the cost-of-living crisis.
New system to deliver a cost-effective solution
The Birmingham researchers claim that their new system could provide a cost-effective solution to steel’s decarbonisation. By incorporating a crystalline mineral lattice, known as a ‘perovskite’ material, the system is able to capture CO2 from the gases emitted by steel furnaces.
Once a high concentration is reached, the perovskite material splits the CO2 into oxygen and carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide is returned to the blast furnace, while the oxygen is absorbed into the mineral lattice. The perovskite itself can then be regenerated through a simple chemical reaction, allowing it to be continuously reused.
According to the researchers, this technology is able to reduce the CO2 emissions of steelmaking by almost 90%. Furthermore, the solution has proven to be significantly cheaper than available alternatives. Through their initial study, the researchers have concluded that it could save UK taxpayers as much as £1.28 billion over a five-year period.
“An electric arc furnace plant can cost over £1 billion to build, which makes this switch economically unfeasible in the time remaining to meet the Paris Climate Agreement. The system we are proposing can be retrofitted to existing plants, which reduces the risk of stranded assets, and both the reduction in CO2, and the cost savings, are seen immediately,” explained Professor Ding.
Cost-effective technologies will be vital in delivering the steel industry’s transition to net zero while ensuring that companies are able to continue their contribution to the global economy. As such, we must hope that this innovative development is further pursued and is not left to fly under the radar.