Steel is necessary and it is everywhere. It is almost impossible to imagine modern-day life without steel, but the traditional manufacturing process of this essential metal is also a threat to our future. Owing to the use of coking coal, the steel industry is a significant emitter of carbon dioxide. With the technological shift in steel manufacturing being the need of the hour, in 2016, Swedish manufacturer SSAB joined forces with mining company LKAB and energy provider Vattenfall, thus HYBRIT was born.
Sweden is aiming to be the world’s first fossil-free welfare nation and HYBRIT – short for Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology – is a quantum leap in that direction. On 31st August 2020, Sweden’s then Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, along with his deputy Isabella Lövin, inaugurated the HYBRIT pilot plant to produce fossil-free sponge iron in Luleå. The joint venture is ambitious, but it can enable the Swedish steel industry to be entirely fossil and carbon dioxide-free in 20 years. In short, if steel manufacturing is the problem, HYBRIT is the solution.
What is HYBRIT?
The technology deployed in the HYBRIT pilot plant and demonstration plant relies on green hydrogen in direct reduction plants as an environmentally friendly alternative to the traditional coal-based blast furnaces. As always, however, the transition from theory to practice tends to be more complication than imagined. In early 2017, the four-year research program was launched to investigate and evaluate possible ways to make a green value chain for energy, iron, and steel. The project is set to produce approximately 1.35 million tonnes of hydrogen-reduced iron annually, to be used for producing crude steel amounting to approximately 25% of Sweden’s total production. This will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 14.3 million tonnes CO₂ over the first 10 years of operation, according to the EU Innovation Fund calculation model.
The strategic stakeholders
LKAB – Its core business is the mining and processing of iron ore for the steel industry. The company is responsible for the production of fossil-free pellets.
Vattenfall – A multinational power company owned by the Swedish State. The state-owned enterprise handles the production of fossil-free electricity. HYBRIT – The project is responsible for the technology behind production of fossilfree sponge iron.
SSAB – A Nordic and US-based steel company. It’s role in the joint venture is to produce fossil-free steel.
HYBRIT’s four pilot facilities
LKAB’s pellet plant in Malmberget – It is the world’s first fossil-free pellet plant. In the autumn of 2020, successful attempts were made to produce the world’s first iron ore pellets with bio-oil.
Direct reduction with hydrogen in Luleå – The plant has a direct reduction reactor where hydrogen reduces the iron ore to iron. In this pilot plant the hydrogen is produced by electrolysis of water with fossil-free electricity.
Hydrogen storage in Luleå – Green hydrogen is the key element in making HYBRIT a success, therefore, to secure the supply of fossil-free hydrogen, it is important to be able to store it under safe and efficient conditions.
Smelting of sponge iron in Luleå – The plant carries out experiments to melt sponge iron, the HBI (Hot Briquetted Iron) that is the result of the direct reduction of iron ore in the so-called DRI.
HYBRIT research program focus areas
1. Delivery of fossil-free electricity
2. Manufacturing and storage of hydrogen
3. Production of fossil-free iron ore pellets
4. Hydrogen-based reduction of iron ore
5. Steel production of hydrogenreduced iron ore
6. To meet the market
Other than the three key players, the Swedish Energy Agency, KTH, Luleå University of Technology, Swerim, RISE ETC, Lund University and Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) have been instrumental in making HYBRIT a reality and Sweden the first in the world to produce fossil-free steel.
Roadmap to green steel production
2016: Pre-feasibility study and the start of a four-year R&D project with support from Swedish Energy Agency.
2017: A joint venture company between SSAB, LKAB and Vattenfall.
2018: HYBRIT pilot plant groundbreaking ceremony.
2019 – 2021: HYBRIT pilot plant inauguration and fossil-free pellets trial.
2020 – 2024: Hydrogen-based reduction and smelting trials.
2021/22 – 2024: An underground hydrogen storage pilot facility is operational from 2022.
2025: SSAB’s blast furnace in Oxelösund will be converted to an electric arc furnace. HYBRIT demo plant.
2026: SSAB fossil-free steel available on the market for commercial use. 2030: SSAB´s sites in Luleå and Raahe will be transformed into cost-effective mini mills, with electric arc furnaces and rolling mills.
2030 – 2040: Industrial plants for HYBRIT
2045: SSAB, LKAB and Vattenfall become 100% fossil-free Eventually, SSAB plans to make the transition at all its sites and provide a fossil-free value chain to automotive and heavy transport industries as early as possible.
Interestingly, in 2021, SSAB delivered the first fossil-free steel, a steel produced at HYBRIT’s pilot plant in Luleå, to the Volvo Group. The company then manufactured the prototype of the world’s first vehicle using green steel. As early as 2026, the goal is to deliver fossil-free steel to the market and demonstrate the technology on an industrial scale.
Support for HYBRIT
In November 2021, the European Union announced that it is in total investing over €1.1 billion into seven large-scale innovative projects under the Innovation Fund. HYBRIT is the only iron and steel project to have received support in the first Innovation Fund call for large-scale projects. The EU Innovation Fund is one of the world’s largest funding programs for demonstrating innovative technologies that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The HYBRIT innovation project has been granted a total of €143 million from the EU Innovation Fund. The grant consists of €108 million for HYBRIT development. Basically, for a demonstration of the hydrogen direct reduction process including fossilfree hydrogen production in Gällivare. A further €30 million to SSAB for the demonstration of electric melting of hydrogen-based direct reduced iron in Oxelösund and finally €5 million to LKAB for the demonstration of fossil-free DR-pellets production for the hydrogen reduction process.
“HYBRIT is paving the way for a fundamental change in the global steel industry. It also demonstrates how fast the green transition can happen: a few years ago, the possibility of producing emission-free steel would have sounded like science fiction. Now, green steel is entering the market. The support granted via the Innovation Fund is a testament to the importance and potential of this technology, and the European Commission is convinced that this cutting-edge project will boost the European Union’s overall competitiveness. Green steel has the future, and that future is already here”, said Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice President of the European Commission responsible for the European Green Deal.
“We’d like to thank the EU Innovation Fund for their trust and confidence in the HYBRITinitiative as well as the ability to create a completely fossil-free value chain from mine to steel. SSAB leads the green transformation in the steel industry and backed by the breakthrough achievements already made we now want to accelerate the transformation and thus decrease our emission footprint even faster, now targeting around 2030. Mitigating climate change is of From ore to steel – the HYBRIT production chain [ TECHNOLOGY ] utmost importance and there is no time to lose,” said Dr Martin Pei, Executive Vice President & CTO at SSAB.
The HYBRIT vision
At the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019 in New York, climate activist Greta Thunberg, who shot to fame in 2018 with her lone protest outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, bluntly told the world leaders, “you are failing us”.
PM Löfven then assured that his country intends to keep the promise of becoming the first fossil-free welfare nation by 2045 and said that we can be the generation that solves the climate crisis.
About a year later, with the inauguration of HYBRIT’s pilot plant, the Scandinavian country embarked on the biggest technological shift in steel manufacturing that the world had ever witnessed.
According to Martin Lindqvist, President, and CEO of SSAB, the demand for consuming green is increasing and fossil-free steel will be the new norm. He predicts that HYBRIT will be the game changer in conceptualising something unimaginable even a couple of years ago.
In April, while speaking at the webinar on “Decarbonisation and Net-Zero Target 2050 for manufacturing industry”, Dr Pei shed some light on SSAB’s transformation plans to a green steel company with HYBRIT. He explained that SSAB, the world’s most CO₂ efficient steelmakers, accounts for 10% of Sweden’s and 7% of Finland’s total emissions and the company wants to make the most of the large surplus of fossil-free electricity available in the region. However, he pointed out some major limiting factors for the project in the form of getting clearances for electricity connections and power supply.
Dr Pei also stated that with HYBRIT, the joint venture partners wish to make a global impact and that is why they are working hard to make the technology more stable and sustainable. SSAB aims to take this technology to a commercial scale and become the first to put fossil-free steel on the market but eventually, they will be open to sharing their technology with the rest of the world.
Moreover, SSAB has invested heavily in fossil-free steel and as part of this, the production process will be documented in an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). An EDP tells the life cycle story of a product in a single, comprehensive report.
In conclusion, it seems safe to say that green steel is picking up steam in Europe and many other parts of the world. Consumers are becoming aware and there is an increasing demand for sustainable value chains across all industries. For companies, it is a chance to make carbon neutrality a strategic competitive advantage and a moral responsibility.
People are waking up to the urgency of the climate situation and now is the time for companies to ensure their businesses are fit for the future.