Steel production accounts for more than 7% of global CO2 emissions, second only to the power industry. To meet the targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement, the steel industry needs to be climate neutral by 2050. However, the production is still largely done using the primary way, which is to use coal to reduce iron ore.
As it stands right now, many steelmakers and other interested parties around the world are conducting research, gathering feedback from pilot projects, upgrading existing facilities and investing in modern plants.
Areas of attention include carbon capture and storage solutions, optimising blast furnace processes, capturing waste furnace heat and – to list the most eye-catching of developments – transitioning to (green) hydrogen. Indeed, there are hopes that hydrogen could even end our dependence on fossil fuels and aid the transition to a net-zero world.
Among the various global innovations to help the world move to more sustainable steel manufacturing, the ongoing work by the UNSW SMaRT Centre with its patented Green SteelTM invention, is especially worth taking note of.
The UNSW SMaRT Centre has published scientific papers to show that waste coffee grounds, yes, you read that right, and hydrogen from other wastes can be used as part of its Green Steel Polymer Injection Technology (PIT).
The whole idea is to make products using waste that add value to the world and at the same time are safe and sustainable.
After the latest industrial trials with partner Molycop, the Australian university’s research centre has claimed that various wastes can be used to make steel more sustainably in electric arc furnaces (EAF).
Wastes including plastic and coffee grounds now join waste rubber tyres as alternative sources of coke and coal as previously vital ingredients as carbon sources for steel making and can provide the element hydrogen which vastly improves the efficiency and energy required for the manufacturing process.
In addition to creating a possibility of producing green steel, this technology also promotes the idea of transition to a circular economy.
“Steelmakers have to meet the demands of quality requirements. The metal that gets produced doesn’t have any memory of whether the parent material that went in was coal or coffee,” said Professor Veena Sahajwalla, UNSW SMaRT Centre Director.
Green steel produced with PIT, according to Sahajwalla, does the job at a comparable level and she expects an equivalent performance.
However, she added that the ultimate aim is to eliminate the need for coal and coke in EAF steel production entirely.
The PIT process not only reduces reliance on non-renewable materials, but it also finds a solution for the growing problem of waste.
As per Sahajwalla, the PIT technology is inexpensive because it doesn’t involve the complete replacement of existing steelmaking kit and it is a sensible starting point to reduce emissions and raw resource consumption in steel manufacturing.
Low emissions steel technologies are being invented but scaling them from the lab to commercial level is an extremely tedious and expensive process. But as the pressure mounts to meet sustainability targets, major steelmakers intend to produce green steel by the mid-2020s.
As expected, low-emission steel production will be considerably more expensive than steel made via the conventional route, but PIT might be the solution to that problem as well.
Waste management and transformation of heavy industry are two giant pieces in the puzzle to solve the climate crisis. This innovation seems to be the answer to at least these two make-or-break trends that hold the key to a sustainable future. And, it goes without saying that it is through deploying a full range of innovative solutions that we can accelerate towards a cleaner and greener future.