On the banks of the Rhine in northwestern Germany is the Thyssenkrupp factory in Duisburg, the largest integrated steel mill in Europe. The colossal facility produces about 11 million tons of steel per year – along with about 20 million tons of carbon dioxide, nearly 2.5 percent of the country’s CO2 emissions.
With EU countries committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030, companies like Thyssenkrupp need to get low carbon quickly. The plan to eventually convert Duisburg’s furnaces to hydrogen is one of the most ambitious in heavy industry.
Industries such as steel, cement and petrochemicals that require extreme heat during production have a huge carbon footprint. According to the World Steel Association, steel is responsible for 7-9 percent of all direct fossil fuel emissions, with each tonne produced yielding an average of 1.83 tonnes of CO2. Cement is responsible for about 8 percent of all global emissions.
Heavy manufacturers, especially in Europe given their environmental regulations, are more advanced than most at decarbonising. But it is an early day. While most European steel companies are considering hydrogen as a way to make so-called low-carbon steel, Chinese rivals have focused more on combining traditional steel production with carbon capture and storage technology.
Opponents say the gas is just one of many solutions for decarbonising production processes, and that the widespread use of clean or “green” hydrogen will be limited by infrastructure and the amounts of renewable energy required. However, experts say governments and companies may have little choice but to overcome these obstacles if heavy industry is to cut its emissions.
“There are many problems with hydrogen, including scaling up the volumes we need, but it doesn’t matter, it’s a must-have,” said Julio Friedmann, senior researcher at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. SIPA. .
Arnd Köfler, Thyssenkrupp’s Chief Technology Officer, said that in order to meet Europe’s stringent emissions targets, “you need to identify the big opportunities where and how to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.” He believes that the size of Duisburg’s emissions offers an excellent opportunity to use hydrogen.
The company is conducting tests to use hydrogen as a reducing agent in traditional blast furnaces, with which, in theory, CO2 savings of up to 20 percent can be achieved. But to make a significant dent in emissions, more drastic changes in technology are required and natural gas or hydrogen must be used instead of coke to separate the oxygen from iron ore – to make what is called direct reduced iron (DRI).
Thyssenkrupp plans to have its first DRI plant operational by 2025, initially producing 400,000 tons of a year of “climate-friendly” steel – made from hydrogen or natural gas – and 3 million tons by 2030. The goal is to complete all of its blast furnaces. to replace. by 2050.
The main obstacles remain, including the purchase of enough hydrogen and the costs – the bill to convert Duisburg for hydrogen is estimated at € 10 billion.
Government support is also required for the construction of the infrastructure for a hydrogen junction. However, Duisburg’s size could make it the core of a hydrogen economy, with pipelines carrying the gas to other industries, including chemical manufacturers. The German government’s National Hydrogen Strategy, published last year, put a clear focus on ‘green’ hydrogen made by using electricity from renewable energy sources to electrolyze hydrogen from water.
Aditya Mittal, CEO of ArcelorMittal, said this week that it was “too early to call” when green hydrogen would come into operation. The company is conducting a number of low-carbon trials, including one to test hydrogen’s ability to reduce iron ore at its Hamburg plant.
“It’s a long journey ahead,” Mittal said. “We are far from the end.”
Converting the 100 million tonnes of steel made per year in the EU with carbon would require around 400 terawatt hours of electricity per year – equivalent to 15 percent of the continent’s total current consumption. All of that should come from renewable sources.
Brian Aranha, ArcelorMittal’s vice president and chief of strategy, said, “It seems very unlikely that we will have that kind of hydrogen available from new renewable energy generation anytime soon.”
Similar problems concern executives in the cement industry, where CO2 is generated by both the chemical and thermal combustion processes involved in production. Most of the major groups in the industry are investigating the use of hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.
Hanson UK, the UK arm of HeidelbergCement Group, has been experimenting with researchers from Swansea University to use green hydrogen to replace natural gas in burners at the Port Talbot, South Wales plant. A government-funded project at the company’s Ribblesdale cement plant in Lancashire is testing the use of hydrogen and biomass fuels in the cement kiln.
The demonstration, said Iain Walpole, environmental sustainability manager at Hanson UK, is to prove “we can produce a product that is still cement” using hydrogen.
Chemical companies are also investigating the use of hydrogen to power their plants. They already have a lot of experience with the gas, which is a by-product of some manufacturing processes.
Ineos, which produces 300,000 tons of hydrogen per year, believes it will be “one element” of the decarbonisation processes. The private chemistry group plans to set up a clean hydrogen supply hub at its factory in Rafnes, Norway, by building a 20 MW electrolyser.
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Geir Tuft, CEO of Ineos subsidiary Inovyn, warns that progress will take time given the amounts of gas required.
“There is a lot of marketing around hydrogen projects. We have to be realistic – we are where the wind industry was 20-30 years ago in terms of stakes. “
And just as the development of the offshore wind industry was triggered by subsidy schemes, that of hydrogen in the steel and cement industry will need state support, experts say.
“In the short term, we expect that a subsidy mechanism will be needed to decarbonise cement and steel,” said Aaron Goater of the UK government’s advisory committee on climate change.
A high carbon price is key. A recent study by BloombergNEF found that hydrogen produced from renewable electricity could be cost-competitive with coal for steelmaking by 2050 if a carbon price of $ 50 per ton of CO2 were applied to coking coal.
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Ultimately, it is up to governments to help create the necessary infrastructure for a hydrogen economy. The UK government’s climate plan promises investments of more than £ 1 billion to support hydrogen projects and set up carbon capture, use and storage in four industrial clusters.
According to Friedmann, this is where the focus should be on decarbonization. Europe, he believes, is ahead of most other countries when it comes to industrial hubs to provide the necessary transmission lines, CO2 transport systems and hydrogen distribution systems.
“It’s difficult and it’s expensive, but that’s the job. Either the governments in Europe pay for that infrastructure or encourage the private sector to do it.”
The colors of the hydrogen rainbow
Green hydrogen Created by using clean electricity from renewable energy technologies to electrolyze water (H2O), separating the hydrogen atom in it from its molecular twin oxygen. Currently very expensive.
Blue hydrogen Produced with natural gas, but with carbon capture and storage or reuse. Negligible quantities in production due to lack of capture projects.
Gray hydrogen This is the most common form of hydrogen production. It comes from natural gas through the reformation of methane with steam, but without capturing emissions.
Brown hydrogen The cheapest way to make hydrogen, but also the most environmentally harmful due to the use of thermal coal in the production process.
Turquoise hydrogen Uses a process called methane pyrolysis to produce hydrogen and solid carbon. Not proven to scale. Concerns about methane leakage.
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