Behold, Carbon-Free Steel Now Exists

Behold, Carbon-Free Steel Now Exists
Photo: Sean Gallup, Getty Images

This week, a Swedish firm announced it had delivered carbon-free steel to a customer — a world-first. It’s a huge step in the race to clean up one of the most carbon-intensive activities on Earth.

On Wednesday, HYBRIT, a partnership between steel company SSAB, state-owned mining firm LKAB, and state-owned utility Vattenfall, said it delivered the clean steel to Swedish automaker Volvo. This was just a test run, but the firm plans to ramp up production to commercial scale by 2026.

“The first fossil-free steel in the world is not only a breakthrough for SSAB, it represents proof that it’s possible to make the transition and significantly reduce the global carbon footprint of the steel industry,” Martin Lindqvist, president and CEO of SSAB, said in a statement.

Making steel is notoriously difficult to decarbonise. The majority of production relies on coal as a raw material feedstock and also as a fuel. HYBRIT has been working to build out clean steel production since it was formed five years ago using renewable power to produce hydrogen and then combining it with iron ore to create a porous material called sponge iron. It began testing the process, which had only been proven at a laboratory scale, last year. This past June, the venture announced it had successfully used this process on a pilot scale. Volvo plans to experiment with the initial batch of green steel by making prototype vehicles and parts, according to the Guardian.

In a sea of new technologies created to take on the climate crisis, this breakthrough is actually big news. The world relies on steel to manufacture countless goods — cars, buildings ships, surgical materials, kitchen cutlery, you name it. According to the International Energy Agency, the iron and steel sector is responsible for 2.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, accounting for 8% of all global energy demand and 7% of energy-related carbon emissions. If production were a country, it would slot in as the fourth-biggest carbon polluter on Earth, sandwiched between the European Union and India. If HYBRIT can create steel without all that pollution, that means other entities can, too. And that needs to happen, fast.

To meet the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius will require drawing down emissions more than 7% each year this decade. The world is already falling behind that pace. While it still needs to do things like ending fossil fuel exploration and use, speeding up the production of green steel beyond one company could also help get things back on track. Seeing so many state-owned ventures involved is also a reminder that strong policy and government support is vital to speed up the transition.