How to best to forge net-zero steel?

Steelmakers in Canada have set a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. However, they know it won’t be easy and are working with governments and organizations to develop new technologies and find new ways to decarbonize the sector and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In particular, the industry is addressing the use of hydrogen in the steel production process, the feasibility and practical application of carbon capture and storage systems, and the use of electricity to refine iron ore into iron and steel.

“I think this is going to be a very difficult and tough road not only for the steel industry but also for our country as a whole to reach net zero,” said Catherine Cobden, President and CEO of the Canadian Steel Producers Association (CSPA ). “I think we have to be very factual about this. It’s not easy, but we’re optimistic.

“We’re seeing some great partnerships. We’re seeing some of the best minds in Canada focusing on it, no question. But it won’t be easy. We must work together with others to move forward and that is our hope.”

The Canadian steel industry has made strides. A report released last November by Golder Associates Ltd. and Thorn Associates found that investments to reduce energy use and emissions have been successful. Based on an assessment of the top 10 steel producing nations, the Canadian sector has the lowest GHG intensity in the world for the integrated steel mills that produce steel from iron ore and the second lowest GHG intensity in the world for electric arc furnace plants that produce steel from scrap steel.

However, the same report noted that a technology scan shows that while the Canadian sector is well advanced in implementing energy efficiency measures, there is still room for improvement and improvements in process efficiencies will not be sufficient to deliver the emissions reductions needed to achieve net-zero to reach.

According to the report, government policy support for breakthrough technologies is needed to continue Canada’s steel sector’s progress in reducing energy and greenhouse gases.

Corben says some of the technology needed to advance the cause is beyond the scope of the steel industry, and it will rely on the government and others to help push the boundaries with new technology.

“We’re looking for things like affordable hydrogen or carbon capture storage or utilization technology, cleaner grids. All of these things together will be really helpful for decarbonizing the industry, but unfortunately they are out of our control. We need others to work with us to bring these solutions to the table.”

For example, Corben said there was a need to study the geological capacity for carbon storage near existing steel mills.

CSPA, the national voice of Canada’s primary steel and pipe industry, has been working on this issue since 2019, when the Board commissioned the organization to develop a way forward on climate change and how to get to grid zero. An action plan was developed and published in 2020, which enshrines the ambitious goal of having the steel sector net zero by 2050.

“It outlined the key things that we need as an industry to have any possibility of reaching net zero,” explains Cobden. “We’re laying out the key things needed to signal to policymakers and our market that we’re on our way, but it’s going to take a collaborative effort and quite frankly, some time.”

Since then, all CSPA member companies are reviewing their decarbonization plans. Two companies have already announced significant projects to reduce their emissions by 45 percent by 2030. Together, the projects will save six million tons of CO2 emissions per year by the end of this decade.

According to the CSPA, Canadian steelmakers are committed to reducing greenhouse gases and the industry has a proven track record of reducing carbon emissions.

CSPA members are also conducting critical research to support the longer-term decarbonization of the steel sector. A key collaboration is a collaborative research agenda currently underway between Canmet Labs and the Canadian Carbonization Research Association (CCRA) to develop new technological solutions to this challenge.

The two are collaborating to implement technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from iron and steelmaking using existing production facilities and to address waste heat recovery technologies. It is also a short-term goal to consider hydrogen and natural gas as alternative heat sources for iron and steel production.

“Even if we can get hydrogen to the gate, we need to do the research that shows how we can use it to make steel,” says Cobden. “So this is all happening as we speak and we’re trying to make progress on that front.”

Earlier this year, CSPA expressed support for the federal 2030 emissions reduction plan tabled in the House of Commons as it will help provide greater business certainty for the remainder of the decade, while providing more detail on the actions Canada will take to to make this land closer to a net-zero future.

As noted by the CSPA, the plan identifies, among other things, the important role of clean power grids, carbon capture and storage, and the future role of hydrogen.

“It certainly provides some certainty and helps us better understand where the government is going,” Corben said. “It also made it really clear that no one is going to get to net zero alone and that it will take an all-man-on-deck approach and we all have to work at it. ”

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