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Automaker Volvo eyes SSAB's green hydrogen steel “breakthrough”

25 June 2021 Cristina Brooks

A joint venture of Swedish steelmaker SSAB, diversified power group Vattenfall, and state-owned iron miner LKAB paved the way for green hydrogen's use in future fossil fuel-free iron and steel as automakers pivot to Sweden.

On 21 June, the Swedish companies announced the "first" pilot-scale fossil fuel-free iron sponge production at the HYBRIT (Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology) joint venture in Luleå, Sweden, which has been in the works since at least 2016.

The prior week, Volvo launched discussions to use steel from the venture in a possible concept car, following on from an April deal to collaborate on vehicle and component manufacturing. The automotive group, controlled by Chinese automaker Geely since 2010, committed two years ago to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2040 and to cut lifecycle carbon footprints per car by 40% by 2025.

In February, Swedish company H2 Green Steel (HSGS), announced plans to build a fossil fuel-free steel mill not far from Luleå in Boden, Sweden.

In May, Mercedes-Benz in May acquired a stake in HSGS, which is led by the ex-CEO of Swedish truckmaker Scania, following its own commitment to build CO2-neutral vehicles by 2039.

The nearby HYBRIT joint venture says it proved it is possible to make 100 mt of directly reduced iron, aka sponge iron, by using emissions-free renewable hydrogen instead of coal and coke to remove oxygen. The coal and coke typically used in iron reduction and other parts of the steelmaking process contribute to the direct emissions of a sector responsible for about 7-9% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions, according to the World Steel Association.

HYBRIT claims its technology can reduce CO2 emissions by 10% in Sweden and 7% in Finland, where SSAB also has production plants. HYBRIT partner LKAB plans to make fossil fuel-free sponge iron in Gällivar to be able to supply SSAB and others with feedstock by 2030.

Wind-powered steelmaking

HYBRIT is also building a pilot-scale rock cavern renewable hydrogen storage facility adjacent to the direct iron reduction pilot plant in Luleå, according to an April statement.

"Storage provides the opportunity to vary demand for electricity and stabilize the energy system by producing hydrogen when there's a lot of electricity, for example in windy conditions, and to use stored hydrogen when the electricity system is under strain," said Andreas Regnell, head of strategy at Vattenfall and chairman of the HYBRIT board.

Vattenfall and its partners believe Sweden should speed up permit approval processes to help expand Sweden's electricity grid to meet at least 55 TWh of total electricity demand from LKAB and SSAB's converted operations.

Vattenfall CEO Anna Borg has said the company is supplying fossil fuel-free electricity that will be used in the project's hydrogen-reduced sponge iron.

The company—which has generation facilities in Germany, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and the UK, plus distribution, district heating, and energy services operations—is also exploring hydrogen production in studies in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe.

It will study the feasibility of building using fossil fuel-free hydrogen for large-scale biofuel production at a refinery in Lysekil, Sweden this year, as well as green hydrogen created with offshore wind power at the Moorburg power plant in Germany. Vattenfall has completed a feasibility study for hydrogen for its Eemshaven gas-fired power plant.

Green steel production race

SSAB will deliver small quantities of green steel to an unnamed customer in 2021 and begin large-scale production by 2026, but the developments in northern Sweden are part of a wider effort to green the sector in Europe.

Luxembourg-based steel giant ArcelorMittal operates what it calls Europe's "only" fossil fuel-free electric arc furnace in Hamburg and plans to use renewable hydrogen in steelmaking processes at its sites in Bremen and Eisenhuttenstadt, also in Germany. It expects to use hydrogen in iron reduction too, once its technology reaches industrial commercial maturity by 2025.

German steelmakers Dillinger, ThyssenKrupp and Salzgitter are all separately working towards hydrogen-based steelmaking, the latter two in studies under Germany's recent €8 billion ($9.73 billion) commitment through the EU's Important Project of Common European Interest (IPCEI) program. Meanwhile, the UK government is working with its steel producers to set greening targets.

The greening of European steel production may allow producers to compete in a new niche in the global steel sector as net-zero targets are adopted by large users of steel. Chinese steel mills accounted for seven of the top ten producers last year, up from six in 2019, IHS Markit data show.

Posted 25 June 2021 by Cristina Brooks, Senior Journalist, Climate and Sustainability

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