By EWN • 09 November 2021 • 11:35
The cars we drive. The buildings we work and live in. Natural gas pipelines. Our electricity transmission towers. Machine tools, the utensils we eat with, the furniture we sit on – none of these modern necessities would be possible without the discovery and advent of steel. This useful metal has a daily impact on our lives, and is arguably the single most important resource when it comes to constructing infrastructure. It is the backbone of developed economies, helping to modernise the world and make it a more convenient place to live. Additionally, steel enables a wide range of manufacturing activities and creates opportunities for innovative solutions in other sectors. According to a 2019 evaluation conducted by Oxford Economics, the steel industry employs 6.1 million people on its own, and supports and facilitates a total of 96 million jobs globally.
Unfortunately, the steel industry is also among the three biggest producers of carbon dioxide. The production of steel is an energy-intensive process, requiring high temperatures to transform iron ore into steel. The energy and heat from the processes come from fossil fuels (primarily coal) and this usage means that for every metric ton of steel produced, 1.85 metric tons of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. According to WorldSteel, total direct emissions for 2020 were 2.6 billion metric tons, representing between seven and nine percent of global emissions.
As we near the sixth anniversary of the adoption of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, significant advancements have been made in the way of achieving global carbon neutrality. Some 130 countries have formally committed to achieve net-zero emissions by the middle of the century, but at the same time the main climate indicators are worsening. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 may have temporarily reduced emissions, but carbon dioxide levels are still at record highs and look to be rising rather than falling. Droughts, fires, storms and floods are increasingly the new normal, the ocean is warming and choking on plastic waste, and deserts are spreading as biodiversity collapses.
For Vik Bansal, CEO of the Australian steel company InfraBuild, he believes companies situated in sectors that are big carbon emitters must act with even more urgency in order for the Paris Agreement to reach its goal of limiting global warming to below two degrees Celsius. As Australia’s largest integrated manufacturer and supplier of steel long products, Infrabuild has made the commitment to decarbonisation, helping to position the world for a sustainable future.
“For the earth to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the big carbon emitters such as data centers or the coal and steel industries need to get ahead of the game. For this reason, many players in the major industries are making 2030 their goal, If we and others like us don’t aspire to go further in our commitment to fighting climate change, we are never going to get there.”
At its most basic, steel is made by mixing carbon and iron at very high temperatures. Iron is found in abundance within the earth’s crust, and four thousand years ago the Iron Age led to the invention of steel by blacksmiths, who discovered that iron became stronger, harder and more durable when carbon was added to their coal furnaces. From southern India to mass-production in China, as the centuries passed societies across the globe continued to improve upon steelmaking methods, although at the time it was still most commonly used for blades and springs. By the 18th century AD breakthroughs in the production saw it become an increasingly popular material for tools, weapons, and particularly as building material, but it was still very expensive and used in limited quantities relative to today.
In the 19th century, new tools and techniques drastically reduced the cost of producing steel. This spurred a huge boom within the steel industry, spearheaded in the United States by the Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie. His company was essential to the building of America’s modern infrastructure, from railroads to bridges to even some of its first skyscrapers. As further advancements such as stainless steel came into the picture, steel became an inseparable aspect of modern industry.
While the production of steel requires far less energy than many other metals, its prevalence within practically every aspect of modern society is the reason behind its significant carbon footprint. Fortunately, steel is one of the only materials in the world that does not lose its properties when recycled, meaning a piece of steel once created has the potential for an endless life cycle. In other words, steel is 100 percent recyclable.
“There are two different ways to make steel today, one is the old fashioned blast furnace, and the other is through the electric arc furnaces,” said Bansal. “The blast furnace is the technique in which raw iron ore is melted and then converted to steel by blowing oxygen through it. At Infrabuild we are already one step ahead because we make our steel exclusively through electric arc furnaces.”
As suggested by the name, rather than using coal as an energy source, electric arc furnaces are mostly powered by electricity, passing it through giant electrodes in the roof of an oven and creating an “arc” that reaches a temperature of 3000 degrees Celsius within it. Through this process old steel is able to be reused in a new way, meaning old cars, buildings, and even cans can contribute to building a green economy.
Currently, 75 percent of the steel that is produced today still comes from blast furnaces, but more and more companies are following the path of InfraBuild and seeking to reduce carbon emissions through implementing electric arc furnaces. According to a study conducted by the European Union, producing one tonne of steel from scrap uses 75 percent less energy when compared to smelting virgin ore, and carbon dioxide emissions fall by 231 tonnes. However, Bansal says that with electric arc furnaces, there is still a carbon footprint due to the fact that they are still partially powered from fossil fuel energies such as natural gas and coal..
“The biggest question for the future is how to better power electric arc furnaces. In doing so, you fundamentally decarbonise steel as much as practically possible,” said Bansal. “This is what we at Infrabuild call a journey to green state: seeking the best way to fuel their electric arc furnaces without relying on fossil fuels.”
With the rapid advancements being made to hydrogen energy, many are beginning to see that solution as an increasingly viable option, while others have suggested biofuel –– agricultural and forestry waste collected and converted to fuel in the region where an electric arc furnace is located. Windmills have also been put forward as a solution, and at Bansal’s InfraBuild the company is exploring everything from the installation of solar panels at some sites to transferring electricity contracts to renewable energy sources as part of its journey towards carbon neutrality,
A vital material for much of human history, the importance of steel has only proven to increase exponentially over time. As in many other industries this now presents a conundrum, as the means of production for this essential component to modern life is also contributing to the decline of the planet itself. Thankfully, steel continues to prove itself to be a miracle material, and its ability to be recycled infinitely means that half of our problem already has a solution. As companies like InfraBuild and people like Vik Bansal continue to commit themselves to solving the other half of the solution, it appears that this may be one industry in which we are able to achieve sustainability while preserving its societal and economic significance.
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