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The end of an era: how the global steel industry is cutting out coal

The end of an era: how the global steel industry is cutting out coal

News is brought to you by Mr. Shailesh Karia

Published on date 03rd May 2021.

As Alberta and B.C. mull expanding metallurgical coal mining in the Rockies, some steel manufacturers are pledging to do away with the need for the carbon-heavy material altogether

“We’re going down to zero.” 

That’s what Thomas Hörnfeldt, vice president of sustainable business at the Swedish-based steel-maker SSAB, told The Narwhal of his company’s carbon emissions. 

Hörnfeldt spoke to me on a video call from his office in Stockholm, a virtual backdrop of a picturesque Swedish canal flickering behind his office chair. He proudly displays a small piece of what he described as SSAB’s first fossil-fuel-free steel on his desk. 

The company made that sample, no coal needed, a year ago in the basement of a technical university in Stockholm. It’s an early step in SSAB’s commitment to completely eliminate carbon pollution from its steel manufacturing plants.

SSAB, which produces approximately 8.8 million tonnes of steel every year at its production plants in Sweden, Finland and the United States, has invested in technology that uses clean hydrogen in place of metallurgical coal.

Metallurgical coal has long been used to manufacture steel, one of the most ubiquitous materials on the planet. Coal is conventionally used for heating and in chemical reactions to create iron, the essential ingredient needed to make steel. But as the world grapples with the climate crisis, the steel industry’s centuries-old reliance on coal — and its enormous carbon footprint — is being called into question.

According to the World Steel Association, the industry is responsible for between seven and nine per cent of the global emissions created from the burning of fossil fuels. 

With the Paris Agreement setting out global goals to dramatically reduce carbon pollution and limit warming to less than two degrees by 2050, the steel sector is, for many, next up in the push to rethink age-old industries.

“It’s a 2,000-year-old technology that just keeps getting refined,” Chris Bataille, an adjunct professor in energy economics at Simon Fraser University, told The Narwhal. And, he said, the next shift for steel manufacturing may well be away from using coal.

That’s exactly what SSAB is doing. The company announced its plans in 2016, along with two partners. The resulting joint venture, Hybrit, also includes an iron ore supplier (LKAB) and an electricity supplier (Vattenfall) — bringing the major components of steel-making together under one umbrella to use hydrogen instead of coal. 

“This concept has been known in the past and it has been done on a small scale,” Hörnfeldt said. “Nobody has really done this in an industrial environment. And that is what we’re testing right now.”

The first pilot plant launched last summer. The company plans to start shutting down its coal-reliant furnaces in a matter of years.

The plans in Sweden are taking root just as the Alberta government faces widespread backlash for its push to open up the province’s iconic Rocky Mountains and eastern slopes to open-pit mining for steel-making coal.


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