The trillion-dollar quest to make green steel
But the main explanation for steel’s giant carbon footprint is that, globally, most steel is still made by heating fossil fuels to turn raw iron ore into finished metal — a process that generates 90 percent of CO2 emissions from steel, along with a toxic soup of heavy metals and air pollution. While recycled steel can displace some of the demand for “primary” steel, it doesn’t diminish the need to clean up or replace coal-fueled furnaces.
Most likely, that shift will include using hydrogen to process iron ore for steelmaking. Only one facility in the world is currently doing this at any meaningful scale: the $180 million Hybrit project in Sweden. However, dozens of projects involving hydrogen are in various stages of development worldwide. Sweden’s H2 Green Steel recently raised $1.6 billion to build the world’s first large-scale, hydrogen-fueled plant, while Chinese steelmaker HBIS Group said it produced its first batch of hydrogen-infused iron.
Undoubtedly, the steel industry’s transformation will require countries to build significantly more renewable energy capacity, both to power electricity-driven furnaces and to produce “green” hydrogen, of which very little is available today worldwide. Down the line, next-generation technologies developed by startups such as Electra and Boston Metal could make it cheaper and easier to produce green steel. All told, decarbonizing iron and steel is expected to require $1.4 trillion of investment by midcentury.
In 2021, three years after construction began, the Hybrit plant successfully produced the world’s first steel reduced by 100 percent fossil-free hydrogen,” which it delivered to Swedish automaker Volvo Group. To date, Pei said the facility has produced about 2,000 metric tons of DRI, also known as “sponge iron.” For comparison, that’s roughly the average amount of steel needed to make over 2,200 cars.