Let me answer this question by focusing on a future technology rather than one that we have already brought to market. For one and a half years now, I have been closely following developments in the area of direct electrolysis of steel. There is a U.S.-based start-up that has developed and operated a pilot plant for a couple of years and is currently taking the next step toward industrial production. Electrolysis replaces the traditional steel-production route with one simple process. It uses iron ore as input material, and the reducing agent is electricity. What’s more, electrolysis does not generate any carbon emissions; only oxygen is released into the atmosphere. It is simple and green—but it is still in the early stages. One challenge is the availability of cheap renewable energy: electrolysis can only be as environmentally friendly as its source of electrical energy. The second hurdle is the material the anode is made of—it has to be inert, chemically non-reactive. The third challenge is to get the metallurgy right and to achieve a proper distribution of trace elements between metal and slag. I am confident that these hurdles will be overcome within the next 5 years.
I am sure that the “hydrogen revolution” will happen. Governments and the private sector are making enormous investments. There are extensive plans for future infrastructure projects—hydrogen pipelines, for example. Most of the problems related to the production and transport of hydrogen have already been solved. Even today, large amounts of hydrogen are already consumed by the oil and gas and chemical industries. But 95 percent of this hydrogen is “gray”—meaning that it was produced using hydro-carbon based energy sources. The future of hydrogen production has to be green. Wind and solar still have great potential, especially in certain parts of the world. Actually, I am in contact with an Australian initiative that intends to build large wind and solar farms in a desert close to them. They plan to use the resulting energy for the production of green hydrogen. Now, if you know that the same region is also home to iron ore mines … it’s very promising. At Primetals Technologies, we have initiated a lighthouse R&D project called HYFOR, a hydrogen-based fine-ore direct-reduction solution, which could be the perfect fit for the Australians. We’ll be commissioning the first pilot plant next year.
I am sure that the hydrogen revolution will happen. Hydrogen is no longer confined to the lab, with governments and the private sector making huge investments.”
If you compare the world of today to that of the 1980s, that gives you an idea of just how much can change over 30 years. I expect this progress to continue or even accelerate. In 2050, world steel production will be 40 to 50 percent higher, and new steel grades with incredible material properties will be available. Steel will also be produced with new methods, which will be significantly greener than those we are currently using. Many governments and leaders within the steel industry have set out goals that, by 2050, suggest an 80 to 95 percent reduction in carbon emissions. A reduction of this size has huge implications and will change the face of steel production forever. Aside from steel, 2050 will be different in many other ways, for instance, in terms of the energy sources we’ll be using. There are many questions that will have to be answered before then. New and improved ways to generate, store, transfer, and distribute renewable energy will have to be established. As hydrogen becomes cheaper and more available, car makers will start selling fuel-cell vehicles, which are far more appropriate for long-distance driving and heavy traffic than today’s electric cars and trucks.
Digitalization is still—and will continue to be—a key topic for steel producers. Thanks to cheap smart sensors and tools like Primetals Technologies’ Through-Process Optimization, the steel plants of today can generate and record vast amounts of data for every single coil they produce. This information does not have to be limited to process-relevant aspects but can extend to energy use and emission data. It is already common practice for plant operators to monitor and track emissions when and where they occur—with comprehensive online control systems. The same is true for energy use. Based on all of this information, it is actually quite easy to establish exactly how much energy was required to produce a given coil, and what the coil’s carbon footprint looks like. It is only a small additional step to introduce “green labeling” for each coil. I think that it is important—not only for Primetals Technologies but also for leading steel producers—to get this global trend started and embrace green labeling for all steel products as an industry standard. End customers will take such green labeling into consideration in their purchasing policy, and governments will be able to better institute appropriate carbon taxes.
It would be of great benefit to the steel industry as a whole if everyone had the same chances.”
I think I would snap my fingers for more equality in the global steel industry. Steel producers in different countries are facing very different conditions—for instance, in terms of environmental regulations and energy prices. As a result, not every producer has the same opportunities. Energy costs are the crucial factor in this equation rather than labor, which only accounts for a few percent of overall production expenditures, and raw materials, which are traded on the global market. It would be of great benefit to the steel industry as a whole and the environment if everyone had the same chances.