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Decarbonizing steel production

November 14, 2019 - 15:37 -- Admin

The global fire crisis has brought home the need for a drastic and rapid reduction in emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. We already have the technology needed to replace nearly all carbon-based electricity generation with renewables, and to use electricity to drive nearly all forms of transport.

Among the more intractable problems are those relating to industrial uses, of which the biggest single example is steel. We can make substantial shifts towards a “circular economy” by recycling scrap in electric arc furnaces, but we still need a carbon-free process for producing new steel from iron ore.

The most promising approach (DRI) involves using hydrogen to directly reduce iron ore to iron, which can then be used as feedstock for an electric arc furnace. An experimental plant has just opened up in Germany.

There is a catch, however. The most common approach to producing hydrogen is currently based on burning lignite, which wipes out any reduction in emissions (in the absence of a mythical sequestration technology), as in this LaTrobe Valley boondoggle.

The alternative, based on electrolysis of water requires, as you might expect, cheap electricity. Fortunately, with a marginal cost of zero, solar and wind can potentially fit the bill, at least if the electrolysis process can be adapted to work when power is cheap. Here’s a source claiming that electrolysis is already cheaper.

At this point, it’s clear that the problem isn’t technology or economics. It’s politicians and voters who would rather destroy the planet than admit they were wrong.