Aotearoa: on a mission to secure tomorrow’s industry by innovating today

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According to the World Economic Forum, the demand for steel is bound to increase by more than a third by 2050. Along with steel´s importance for core infrastructure, we must acknowledge its importance in achieving a global transition to a clean energy economy and zero-emission targets. New Zealand (Aotearoa) is actively participating in this transition. The GSW editorial team had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Troy Coyle, CEO of HERA, a New Zealand-based independent research association that supports research in heavy engineering with a focus on structural steel. To have a better grasp of HERA´s mission and New Zealand´s potential for decarbonisation, Green Steel World sat down with Dr. Coyle for an informative conversation.

GSW: What is HERA´s mission, with special emphasis on your efforts to help decarbonise the steel industry?

TC: Our vision is to secure tomorrow’s industry by innovating today. Our mission is to build a passionate tribe of ´metalminds´ that innovate successfully. The industry must decarbonise in order to be sustainable. That requires innovation. Our role is to undertake research related to heavy engineering, including supporting the manufacturing and construction sectors to decarbonise where they make use of heavy engineering.

GSW: HERA developed the world’s first comprehensive steel product offset calculator. Can you describe it to us in more detail? For example, what makes it special and how can it help decarbonise New Zealand´s steel industry?

TC:  Our local steel supplier, New Zealand Steel, has announced several initiatives to decarbonise local steel production. However, until it builds its planned electric arc furnace, and an alternative reductant is found for its steel-making process, there remains a need to focus on production process improvements (that are in the control of the manufacturer) and a need for offsets (that are in the control of the rest of the channel, including the project owner). However, offsets receive a lot of negative attention because, firstly, they should be a last resort in the decarbonisation process, and secondly, they can be “greenwashed”. We wanted to create a comprehensive and evidence-based calculation process that was robust so that the offsets could be credible and provide additionality. We have a very conservative set of program rules for calculation and have chosen offsets that provide additional social and environmental benefits, for example, protecting native forests being managed by indigenous communities. Our program covers all types of steel products such as stainless steel, roofing, rebar, light gauge framing, and structural steel. The program covers the majority of products used in the New Zealand market. This comprehensiveness and robustness make it a global first.

GSW: During the webinar, you mentioned the importance of “material passports”. Can you please elaborate on this concept?

TC: Material passports are a critical component of developing a circular economy that goes beyond recycling steel and more towards reuse. They provide a digital record of the material’s (in this case steel) provenance and digitally record the attributes of the product that will identify its ability for reuse. In that way, a building effectively becomes a bank of materials that can be drawn upon at the end of life and reused.

Hera is currently developing a steel circularity passport to facilitate structural steel reuse.
Hera is currently developing a steel circularity passport to facilitate structural steel reuse.

GSW: Hydrogen is accompanied by many technical obstacles such as safe storage and transportation. You mentioned that locating the infrastructure near the main uses of green hydrogen is important. Do you think we should focus on being more “local” when it comes to hydrogen?

TC: For steel to decarbonise, the most exciting alternative reductant is hydrogen. This, in turn, requires significant research and capital expenditure. From a decarbonisation perspective, the ideal scenario is to have that hydrogen being produced using low-carbon sources and for it to be located geographically close to the site where it will be used. However, in many countries, one or the other of these two components will not be in play. Therefore, hydrogen storage and transport are going to become very important.

GSW: Iron sand is used in New Zealand´s steel industry instead of iron ore. Is there a significant difference between the two regarding the quality of the final product and does it somehow complicate the development of new technology?

TC: CO2 emissions are primarily generated in the reduction process required to create more pure iron from iron oxides. The source of iron oxides differs globally depending on the raw materials available. This means there may be some regional requirements in the research relating to hydrogen as an alternative reductant due to the different raw materials being used.

Dr. Troy Coyle, CEO of HERA
Dr. Troy Coyle, CEO of HERA

GSW: How open is communication and collaboration on an international level? Does New Zealand´s geographical position fall into the pros or cons category?

TC: There are many fora through which companies are collaborating with regard to decarbonisation technologies. I would suspect several are also actively watching the progress others are making with an eye to later adopting that technology. It is likely that there will be a significant financial value associated with that IP, hence the research groups independently working on the same problem. In New Zealand, due to the iron sands being the raw material for iron production, there are specific research requirements that make it unique and would only really be applicable to other companies using the same, or similar, raw materials.

GSW: Can you share with us your opinion on policymaking and the current policy setting in New Zealand and in the rest of the world?

TC: Policy setting is very important. My view is that with limited public and private funding available, governments should focus on supporting the projects that will deliver the most significant carbon reductions. This is sometimes not seen as very popular as governments are then seen to be helping the companies that are currently the largest emitters. However, pragmatically, that is where the greatest reduction potential lies. I think there should be a partnership, with strong incentives for those large emitters to decarbonise and at the same time, strong disincentives for not making improvements.

GSW: Do you think that New Zealand´s renewable energy capacities are being successfully exploited?

TC: I believe that all countries need to invest more in their renewable energy capacities. These will be required to drive a low-carbon hydrogen economy, and, over time, this may become a very important strategic advantage for domestic economies that do not have to rely upon importing low-carbon energy, for example, hydrogen. Countries, such as Australia, are developing national strategies to ensure that they become renewable energy exporters. Countries that do not do the same, will end up producing high-carbon products that will have increasingly smaller market appeal.

Investments in renewable energy capacities will be key for driving a low-carbon hydrogen economy.
Investments in renewable energy capacities will be key for driving a low-carbon hydrogen economy.

GSW: What does decarbonisation mean for you, both privately and professionally?

TC: Professionally, we have a range of research projects to support decarbonisation in our industry. Privately, I am doing everything I can. For example, I choose to be vegan, one reason being the overwhelming evidence that our choice of food has significant carbon impacts.

GSW: What would you say is the key factor to achieving our goals? Is it perhaps time?

TC: It is a matter of time for the technologies to be developed that will enable alternative reductants to be used at full-scale steel production. In the meantime, it is up to the supply chain, consumers, and regulators to create the demand for interim decarbonisation measures.

GSW: Anything you would like to share with us and our readers?

TC: HERA is leading a $10,3 million project relating to Construction 4.0. A large part of this research program is developing circular design using Industry 4.0 technologies. This incorporates the concept of designing for reuse and cradle-to-cradle-to-cradle approaches. While the immediate focus has been on Module A embodied carbon, if we want to ensure decarbonisation, Module D considerations become increasingly important, i.e., circular design. We also have a project running to develop design guidance to reduce carbon in low-storey buildings and deliver a framework that can be used for all building typologies. Again, we believe that the comprehensive nature of that research, across Modules A-D, makes it unique globally.

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Lucija Kozina
Lucija Kozina
Lucija started her career as a translator. Having moved to Germany, she found herself in editorial shoes and is now doing her best to navigate her way through various industries in order to bring informative but easy-to-read content to readers.

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All images were taken before the COVID-19 pandemic, or in compliance with social distancing.