Although society tends to perceive carbon negatively because of greenhouse gases’ role in climate change, it’s important to remember that carbon is actually a valuable commodity.
We use carbon in everything.
We use it in our fuels, to produce electricity, and it is present in everything we buy, from carpet to clothing.
Today, the carbon content in all these things comes from freshly extracted fossil fuels, but if we are to keep global warming well below the 2-degree Celsius target set out in the Paris Agreement, when projections tell us we’re currently on track to hit twice that, a significant amount of available fossil fuels must remain in the ground. We cannot use them and stick to that carbon budget. But we can curb our use of freshly extracted fossil fuels by recycling the carbon we’ve already used into what it’s really required for – liquid fuels. Renewable electricity won’t keep our planes flying, but it will power our homes and factories. As well as channeling carbon-based fuels to where they are really needed, this approach also contributes to decarbonising the transport sector because fuel made from recycled carbon emits at least 80% less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional gasoline.
As a business, we are making incremental improvements to the efficiency of our operations while exploring the possibilities of more transformational technologies.
Our partnership with LanzaTech, a company which specialises in recycling carbon by taking waste gases rich in carbon monoxide and converting them into bioethanol, is one example of the transformational changes we are seeking to make. LanzaTech’s specially developed microorganism takes all the carbon and energy it needs from the carbon monoxide molecule. In this context, the big carbon problem is not a problem at all because having abundant CO to convert into bioethanol is actually an advantage, particularly as we can capture the emissions at source and don’t need to go trying to collect it. For every tonne of bioethanol produced by LanzaTech’s technology, it prevents five barrels of gasoline from needing to be produced, keeping more fossil fuels in the ground.
To enable us to do this, we are building Europe’s first commercial-scale demonstration facility of LanzaTech’s technology at our steelworks in Ghent, Belgium. When complete in mid-2020, the facility will determine whether the technology works as intended and is commercially viable at this scale. We are confident it will be, hence the significant investment we are making – the project will cost €150 million. Once we reach that stage, we have the option to further scale up the project, or roll it out at our other integrated steel plants, but I want to stress we are taking this one step at a time and proving the viability of the Ghent project is our first step.
The fascinating – and incredibly exciting – thing one learns when exploring the possibilities of carbon recycling is that you discover so much more you can do once you have a basic chemical product such as ethanol. For example, you can dehydrate it to create ethylene and start making all sorts of plastics. Or you can convert the ethanol into jet fuel or other petrochemicals, synthetic rubber and even fabrics like nylons. In fact, a Virgin Atlantic aircraft recently made the first commercial flight, from Orlando to London, using jet fuel partly made from ethanol produced from waste gases.
Our demonstration project at Ghent will use 15% of the gas produced by our steelworks there, the equivalent of roughly one million tonnes of primary steel production, to produce 80 million litres of bioethanol. This is equivalent to putting 100,000 electric cars on the road.
Consider the scale of the opportunity here. Worldwide, one billion tonnes of primary steel is produced using the carbon method. If scaled up 1,000 times to the size of the global steel industry, it would be the equivalent to putting 100 million electric cars on the road! The reason this matters is we’re all trying to grow our GDPs. Carbon capture and reuse technologies like LanzaTech’s demonstrates that industrial growth and the environment are not at odds with one another. If we do it right, we can nurture both.
As part of the same project, our Ghent facility is also demonstrating a second technology called torrefaction, which aims to reuse carbon by replacing coal in the blast furnace with waste biomass. Today, municipalities in Europe collect waste wood from demolition sites and incinerate it, causing environmental harm. Torrefaction involves turning this waste wood into a kind of charcoal which is then ground and injected into the blast furnace. Not only does this put the waste wood to good reuse, it means that rather than being incinerated as it otherwise would have been, it is instead gasified, as the carbon it contains is used for the chemical reaction required to make steel. So not only are we putting our waste by-products to good use, but we are also looking at how we can make use of waste products from other industries – non-sequestered carbon – as input materials in our own steelmaking processes so we can leave fossil fuels in the ground. Again, this is a pilot project and we first need to prove it works. Once we’ve done that, we will look at our options to scale it up.
We are also looking for more ways we could potentially recycle the waste carbon from our steelmaking processes over the longer term. For instance, the IGAR project at Dunkirk, France is trying to capture the CO2 from the blast furnace and reform it into a hot reductant gas using plasma torch technology and renewable electricity. The gas would be then injected back into the blast furnace to be reused, replacing fossil coal. The process has been demonstrated in the lab and should be ready for a first industrial pilot test in 2020.
Theoretically, alternative steelmaking methods, such as direct electricity, which uses electrons rather than carbon to remove the oxygen molecules from the iron ore, could achieve a greater reduction in greenhouse gas emissions – when renewable energy is used. Our Maizières R&D centre, also in France, is researching how we could scale up such technology with the help of EU funding, but we could be decades away from being able to employ such methods on a commercial scale.
Some argue that the holy grail of steelmaking would be to use hydrogen instead of carbon, as this would produce water as a byproduct, rather than greenhouse gases. While this is hypothetically true, we would need to make the hydrogen first. Making enough hydrogen to feed the entire European steel industry would require 60,000MW of zero carbon electricity capacity, the equivalent of 60 average-sized nuclear reactors! Such electricity consumption would increase the cost of that steel by more than €500 per tonne of CO2 saved.
So, while this may be the theoretical ideal, given where hydrogen infrastructure is today, making this idea a reality is a long-term project indeed!
Researching and testing the technologies I’ve covered here will enable us to use carbon more intelligently and could enable deep decarbonisation in the long-term. But maximising this potential will require multi-stakeholder collaboration. We will need to work closely with the energy, transport, chemical and waste industries, among others, to redesign the value chain to create a truly circular economy, one which adds – rather than extracts – value at every stage of a product’s life cycle.
We also need the right policy support to develop the reliable, abundant and economic sources of renewable energy needed to run steel plants using the low carbon, but energy intensive processes I’ve written about here. Grants to support research into groundbreaking technology which could produce carbon-free steel at prices consumers can afford would also be a key enabler. Provided policymakers pave the way there, I’m optimistic that – in time – the future of steelmaking can be truly green.