Saturday, December 14, 2019

Iron and steel without fossil fuels

In electricity generation, renewables are these days much cheaper than coal, and heading towards parity with gas.  For example, in 2009 Lazard calculated that new solar cost 3.2 times new coal.  Now, that ratio is reversed.  New coal costs 3 times new solar.  Battery costs are plunging, by 15 to 20% per annum, which means it's getting cheaper and cheaper to "firm" renewables, so that large percentages of renewables can be introduced to the grid without affecting its stability.

At the same time, the falling cost of batteries mean that electric vehicles (EVs) will soon (2022-2024) reach sticker price parity with petrol/diesel cars.   By 2030, it will be technically and economically feasible to have 80 or 90% green electricity and a 50% (or more) electric vehicle fleet.  The Republicans and their oil-soaked billionaire friends will do their best to stop this trend, but it will be irresistible to most of the world.  Why use something that's filthy and polluting and kills millions globally when the alternatives are cheaper, cleaner, and carbon free?

But that still leaves the remaining sectors which produce CO₂, like iron and steel, cement, air travel and agriculture.

Of these, the iron and steel sector is making all the right moves (though it still has a long way to go)

First, steel made using green hydrogen (from en-former):

The EU is taking climate protection very seriously. Both increasingly stricter environment and climate protection regulations and rising costs through emissions trading are turning up the heat for the industry. By 2030, greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union are to be reduced by at least 40 percent compared the corresponding levels from 1990. By 2050, they are to be cut by as much as 80 to 95 percent.

This affects the steel industry in particular, given that it is considered to be one of the main industrial sources of the climate-damaging gas carbon dioxide. As a result, European steel producing companies are trying to fundamentally change their manufacturing processes through a number of pilot projects and test facilities in order to reduce these unwanted emissions.

The joint endeavours of a project of three Swedish companies, the steel group SSAB, the mining group LKAB and the energy group Vattenfall, are already coming along swimmingly. ‘Hybrit’, short for ‘Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology’, is set to produce zero carbon steel from 2020 onwards. At a plant in Luleå in northern Sweden, the conventional production method is being given a dramatic facelift.

The production of pig iron, which is later made into crude steel, uses iron ore as a basic material together with what is referred to as a reducing agent, which removes oxygen from the iron ore. Traditional pig iron manufacturing processes usually use coke as a reducing agent. However, in doing so carbon and oxygen produce the climate-damaging gas carbon dioxide.

The new production process uses hydrogen instead of coke, which also reacts with the oxygen in the iron ore, but the result is water vapour rather than carbon dioxide. The hydrogen itself is produced climate-neutrally with electricity from renewables. As such, the process could ultimately produce genuinely ‘green steel’.

Initially, Hybrit will only produce a comparatively modest amount of one metric ton of steel per hour. Moving forward, however, production is to be expanded to churn out the usual industrial quantities of around 100 to 200 times this figure. According to the feasibility study, the associated costs are currently still 20 to 30 percent higher than those of the traditional process, mainly because hydrogen production is complex and energy-intensive. 

[Wind costs are falling by 5% per annum, and solar by 10-15%, so that 30% cost premium will disappear within 5 to 6 years; plus the cost of carbon is only going to rise from her on out]

Difference between conventional steelmaking and the new Hybrit process: The Hybrit process uses hydrogen instead of coke, which produces no CO2 but only water (Source: Hybrit). 

Second, steel made using wind (E&E News):

For decades, access to cheap coal-fired electricity fueled industrial expansion across the Midwest, from auto plants to steel mills.

These days, a cleaner and cheaper energy source — winds blowing across the central Plains — is enabling new manufacturing investments, key sources of jobs and taxes for states hungry to grow their economies.

The latest example? A $250 million Nucor Corp. "micro" mill taking shape in Sedalia, Mo., that will be the first U.S. steel production plant that will run on wind energy.

The Sedalia mill's significance stretches beyond the state and represents the potential for greening the steel industry, which globally is a major source of carbon emissions, environmental advocates say. A report last year from the group Mighty Earth — "Cold Steel, Hot Climate" — noted that steel represented 7% of global carbon emissions worldwide in 2013, much of that from less efficient blast furnaces.

The plant is also indicative of what Midwest utilities and clean energy advocates alike see as new potential for economic expansion in the Heartland. While Appalachia has cheap shale gas driving big new investments, the Great Plains has an unlimited supply of even cleaner cheap wind.

The contract between Nucor and Kansas City-based utility Evergy Inc., which will bring new wind capacity online to supply the plant, is part of a broader national trend of corporate renewable energy purchases to achieve sustainability goals.

Nucor will be Evergy's largest Missouri customer when the plant begins operation. And the wind farm that will supply the plant, which has yet to be announced, will offset 100% of the mill's electricity supply.

The Sedalia mill will still rely on fossil from the regional Southwest Power Pool bulk power grid when it can't draw enough energy from wind on Evergy's system. Even then, the plant will be supplied at least partly by renewables as the power supply in SPP increasingly becomes greener (Energywire, Nov. 6).

In neighboring Iowa, wind energy has helped attract some of the biggest names in technology, including Google LLC, Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Corp. In Kansas, access to carbon-free wind energy was a key in the state landing a Mars Inc. plant.

[In this case, they are using scrap steel, not iron ore.  But the point is that wind costs have fallen so much that this steel-making method is now cost effective compared with traditional scrap steel operations, which use gas.  And gas is cheaper in the US than elsewhere.]

Third, steel made using the sun (CNN Business):

A secretive startup backed by Bill Gates has achieved a solar breakthrough aimed at saving the planet.

Heliogen, a clean energy company that emerged from stealth mode on Tuesday, said it has discovered a way to use artificial intelligence and a field of mirrors to reflect so much sunlight that it generates extreme heat above 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Essentially, Heliogen created a solar oven — one capable of reaching temperatures that are roughly a quarter of what you'd find on the surface of the sun.

The breakthrough means that, for the first time, concentrated solar energy can be used to create the extreme heat required to make cement, steel, glass and other industrial processes. In other words, carbon-free sunlight can replace fossil fuels in a heavy carbon-emitting corner of the economy that has been untouched by the clean energy revolution.

"We are rolling out technology that can beat the price of fossil fuels and also not make the CO2 emissions," Bill Gross, Heliogen's founder and CEO, told CNN Business. "And that's really the holy grail."

Heliogen, which is also backed by billionaire Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, believes the patented technology will be able to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from industry. Cement, for example, accounts for 7% of global CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.

Unlike traditional solar power, which uses rooftop panels to capture the energy from the sun, Heliogen is improving on what's known as concentrated solar power. This technology, which uses mirrors to reflect the sun to a single point, is not new.

Concentrated solar has been used in the past to produce electricity and, in some limited fashion, to create heat for industry. It's even used in Oman to provide the power needed to drill for oil.The problem is that in the past concentrated solar couldn't get temperatures hot enough to make cement and steel.

"You've ended up with technologies that can't really deliver super-heated systems," said Olav Junttila, a partner at Greentech Capital Advisors, a clean energy investment bank that has advised concentrated solar companies in the past.

That means renewable energy has not yet disrupted industrial processes such as cement and steelmaking. And that's a problem because the world has an insatiable appetite for those materials. Cement, for instance, is used to make the concrete required to build homes, hospitals and schools. These industries are responsible for more than a fifth of global emissions, according to the EPA.

That's why the potential of Los Angeles-based Heliogen attracted investment from Gates, the Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder who recently surpassed Amazon (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos as the world's richest person.

"I'm pleased to have been an early backer of Bill Gross's novel solar concentration technology," Gates said in a statement. "Its capacity to achieve the high temperatures required for these processes is a promising development in the quest to one day replace fossil fuel."

Heliogen uses computer vision software, automatic edge detection and other sophisticated technology to train a field of mirrors to reflect solar beams to one single spot.

"If you take a thousand mirrors and have them align exactly to a single point, you can achieve extremely, extremely high temperatures," Gross said, who added that Heliogen made its breakthrough on the first day it turned its plant on.

Heliogen said it is generating so much heat that its technology could eventually be used to create clean hydrogen at scale. That carbon-free hydrogen could then be turned into a fuel for trucks and airplanes.

Heliogen's biggest challenge will be convincing industrial companies using fossil fuels to make the investment required to switch over. Gross said the company has been talking to potential customers privately and plans to soon announce its first customers.

"If we go to a cement company and say we'll give you green heat, no CO2, but we'll also save you money, then it becomes a no-brainer," said Gross.

Its biggest selling point is the fact that, unlike fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, sunlight is free. And Heliogen argues its technology is already economical against fossil fuels because of its reliance on AI.

"The only way to compete is to be extremely clever in how you use your materials. And by using software, we're able to do that," Gross said.

"If you can make hydrogen that's green, that's a gamechanger," said Gross. "Long term, we want to be the green hydrogen company."
[Even without fossil fuels, cement production involves cooking limestone to force the release of CO₂, so using CSP instead of fossil fuels won't completely cut its emissions.  But it's a big step in the right direction.]

Heliogen, backed by Bill Gates, has achieved a breakthrough that could allow cement makers to transition away from fossil fuels. The company uses artifical intelligence and an array of mirrors to create vast amounts of heat, essentially harnessing the power of the sun.

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