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Published on: Nov. 14, 2022, 8:58 a.m.
Can steel makers succeed in cutting carbon?
  • While making 1 tonne of steel, carbon to the tune of 1.85 tonnes is released

By Daksesh Parikh. Executive Editor, Business India

Cement and steel industries are heavy carbon emitters. Steel, in particular, accounts for an estimated 6-7 per cent of total global emissions. Cement is around the same or marginally higher. One of the reasons for the higher emissions is that both industries use raw materials like coal and iron which by themselves are carbon-rich. Cement also uses limestone which during mining also emits dust into the air. Steel by-products also emit carbon. 

In the case of steel which is produced from the blast furnace method, petroleum coke or nut coke (smaller version of concentrated coke) is required at various stages. As a rule of thumb 1.5-2 tonnes of iron ore (depending on the quality) with one tonne of good quality coke is required to produce one tonne of crude steel. In the making of a tonne of steel, carbon to the tune of 1.85 tonnes is released in efficient plants. Besides this, large quantities of greenhouse gases are also released. 

In India, policy makers have tried to specify reduction of GHG emissions in the iron and steel sector to 2.2 -2.4 tonnes of steel if made through the blast furnace round and 2.4-2.6 per tonnes of crude steel if produced through the electric arc furnace route, by FY30. This is aligned to India’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) post COP21 and the Paris Agreement. The Indian industry already reduced its CO2 emissions from 3.1 to 2.6 in 2020. 

With nearly 70 per cent of steel being made globally through the blast furnace route as compared to the more efficient electric arc route, the steel industry is investing heavily into making the process more and more efficient to reduce the carbon footprint. To reduce it even further, several companies use scraps and also reuse the iron and steel used earlier. Since steel is used largely in automobiles, construction, roads, buildings and ships besides several other industries, reused steel is a good option.

The catch is in getting scraps of reused steel. The redevelopment of buildings does release some scrap but the quantity required to substitute it is still not enough and scrap has to be imported. In developed countries which were industrialised earlier, more scrap is available from redevelopment and automobile scrappage. In places like the UK, which has imposed a carbon tax, scrap is very often exported and finished steel is imported. 

Indian companies are also taking steps in their own way to reduce the carbon footprint. This includes modernising, making more efficient use of resources and converting waste into useful resources.

In India, which has one of the largest shipbreaking industries, a fair amount of scrap is generated. Till recently however no formalised methods for collection of steel scrap existed. Tata Steel has taken the initiative of formally collecting scrap and reusing it. Its Steel Recycling Business division set up  FerroHaat, a unique mobile app to source steel scrap from traders.

Digitising the scrap market to some extent through this 24/7 app, it subsequently launched a mini steel plant with the capacity of producing a 0.5 to 0.8 million tonnes steel plant. It proposes to set up more such plants in each region closer to scrapyards – they will use scrap from automobiles. 

JSW Steel, another large producer of steel, has also taken various initiatives resulting in responsible consumption and production. These includes converting slag into sand which can be used as replacement for sand in road construction. Besides making slag sand, it also uses slag for making paver blocks. It has also set up a Portland Slag cement unit with a capacity to manufacture 14 mtpa.

  • Indian steel makers are investing heavily in various initiatives to cut down the carbon footprint

Tata Steel took the initiative in setting up the first carbon capture and utilisation unit which was commissioned in 2021. The unit at Jamshedpur captures around 5 tonnes of carbon per day and converts it for reuse at the plant. JSW Steel has also collaborated with Larsen and Toubro Limited to explore and evaluate various Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) technologies and their applications.

Green Steel and Gold hydrogen

Green steel is the new expression used when making steel with less CO2 emissions and using hydrogen instead of CO2. Creating hydrogen itself uses a lot of energy and hydropower is being used in some places to replace energy from coal and power. However, with storage in bulk still a problem it has not really taken off in a big way.

This new experiment uses a process which pumps microbes and recycled water in residual oil reservoirs and post the carbon capture the hydrogen in stored in a cavern. This is done in the subsurface. Biomass gasification and coal gasification has yet to take off across the industry. Gold hydrogen production is very cost-competitive but the evacuation from the sub-surface strata will be a challenge unless the steel plant is near old reservoirs. 

The process of modification, the optimum usage of raw materials or using less GHG emitting resources is being done globally by the industry but reaching net carbon zero is nearly impossible in the coming years. Besides, steel with its inherent properties and its uses in transport, construction, mobility solutions including cars, ships, railways make reducing its usage in a growing economy like India’s next to impossible.  

Considerable research is happening to find alternate metals which can replace steel partially or fully to make a material difference to GHG emissions. Graphene is one wonder material which was touted for the last few decades as the material to replace steel in a meaningful manner. Graphene is a material comprising of a single layer of carbon and is around 200x stronger than steel, and lighter than paper, with good electrical and mechanical properties.

Tata, which has been doing R&D on graphene since 2014, has to its credit several graphene and related materials, such as a unique few-layer reduced graphene oxide (rGO) film and twisted multilayer graphene on nickel foil. But graphene has remained confined to the laboratory and the initial thoughts of replacing steel in some way or other have remained just that – thoughts on paper. Tata’s new material division has, however, been introducing new products.

During Covid it constructed pre-fabricated units branded Nest-In, using tubes and Fibre Reinforced Polymer (FRP) to manufacture quarantine units. FRP is positioned as a new-age alternative building material that shows promise of becoming a viable mass-production solution for the future.

  • The process of modification, the optimum usage of raw materials or using less GHG emitting resources is being done globally by the industry but reaching net carbon zero is nearly impossible in the coming years

In the immediate future the steel industry is looking at offsetting carbon emissions to get to near zero-carbon emission status. JSW Steel has developed a mangrove restoration plan across 5,000 hectares. In water deficient places like Salem and Vijayanagar it has strengthened the mechanism for water conservation and security by introducing dry steel-making technology. This enhances water utilisation efficiency, and recovers good quality water via reverse osmosis. 

There are water sprinkler/wind net and dry & wet fog systems in raw material handling areas at Salem to reduce fugitive emissions. Jindal Steel recently said it earmarked Rs10,000 crore to reduce carbon emissions through various initiatives, including the usage of renewable energy to replace thermal power. It also plans to reduce the fuel rate through improved raw material quality through beneficiation, and deploying the best available technologies.

The Steel Authority of India has also taken several initiatives to reduce GHG emissions. Over the last 5 years it has planted nearly 212 lakh tree saplings to create what it dubs as a carbon sink. The PSU, which also has its own mines, has been active in restoring its mined areas through eco-restoration by planting trees. In its mines, townships and plants, it uses energy-efficient lighting systems and actively procures solar power from its units. 

The point is that all companies in India are going all out to retain cost-competitiveness in steel and also reduce carbon footprints. By 2030, India will not only meet the targets set by the policy makers but will be on its way to become a carbon neutral producer of this uniquely sustainable material which has a long, long life before it gets recycled. 

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