13 February 2020

New £1.26 million study to decarbonise the steel industry

Scientists at the Universities of Sheffield and Leeds have secured funding to investigate ways the UK steel industry can be decarbonised within 30 years.

Steel works
  • University of Sheffield scientists to find ways to help steel industry meet the government's target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050
  • Team will use new Energy Institute facilities to perform pilot scale experiments
  • Every tonne of steel manufactured currently creates 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide

Scientists at the Universities of Sheffield and Leeds have secured funding to investigate ways the UK steel industry can be decarbonised within 30 years. 

Steel manufacturing is a high carbon process. According to figures from the World Steel Association, every tonne that is manufactured creates 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). 

With the UK legally committed to be a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050, the industry faces an uncertain future unless it ends its dependence on carbon. 

An interdisciplinary team from the Energy Institute at the University of Sheffield, with colleagues at the University of Leeds, has won £1.26 million from the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions, which is funded by UK Research and Innovation, to develop approaches that blend technology and policy with the aim of eliminating the industry’s dependence on fossil fuels. 

Bill Nimmo, Professor of Energy Engineering and Sustainability at the University of Sheffield, said: “This project will take a whole systems approach to look at the integration of low carbon technologies and bioenergy into the manufacture of steel, with the target of reducing this vital industry's net CO2 emissions to zero.

“University of Sheffield researchers will provide expertise on the technical pathways for maturing decarbonisation technologies, and use our new facilities to perform small pilot scale experiments. From there, we can understand which technologies can be scaled up and advise government and industry on how steel can be made in a more sustainable manner, with impact both in the UK and overseas.”

Professor William Gale, an energy expert at the University of Leeds and the project’s principal investigator, said: “The reality is the steel industry in the UK has to decarbonise, but this has to be done sensitively otherwise there is a risk the industry will relocate to where the rules on carbon are more lax. 

“Our challenge is to bring about real change without eroding the wafer-thin margins on which the industry operates. 

“Steel is an important material so we can’t just stop manufacturing it. This project will bring together a range of experts: from scientists and engineers involved in researching alternative methods of production or ways to recover it from scrap – to policy and business experts analysing the policy initiatives and incentives needed for this change.

“Our research will investigate a range of emerging technologies and solutions. We will look at whether there is a way you can integrate a number of different approaches. We will delve into the costs and timescales and develop a very detailed, fully-costed ‘route map’ of technologies and policies which will enable industry to make this vital transformation without it being saddled with unrealistic costs.” 

Professor Nick Eyre, Director of the Centre for Research into Energy Demands Solutions, said: “Decarbonising the UK energy system is a major national challenge for the coming decades, nowhere more so than in major industrial processes. I am therefore delighted that colleagues from Leeds and Sheffield are joining CREDS to research steel industry decarbonisation.” 

The research at the Universities of Sheffield and Leeds will also help the government achieve its Clean Growth Strategy, a commitment made in 2017 to grow and develop the UK economy at the same time as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Steel production is carbon-hungry. A blast furnace is used to turn iron ore into liquid hot metal and this is energy intensive. That energy comes with a large carbon footprint if it does not come from renewable sources. 

The chemistry at the heart of the production process uses carbon. Coke, which comes from coal, is used as a reducing agent in the blast furnace. Carbon dioxide is produced as a waste product. The liquid hot metal which comes out of the blast furnace is saturated in carbon and the excess carbon is then removed in a basic oxygen furnace to produce crude steel. 

Far more carbon enters the steelmaking process than is needed in the final product and much of this excess carbon ends up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. 

There are alternatives to the use of carbon-intensive blast furnaces – such as using hydrogen to reduce iron ore, in a process known as direct reduced iron. However, this is only a ‘clean’ process if a sustainable source of hydrogen is used, and there will be competition for this hydrogen from other uses in a future low carbon economy, such as fuel cell electric vehicles. 

According to the European Steel Association, about 50 per cent of the steel produced in Europe is derived from scrap metal. Scrap is melted in electric arc furnaces which require huge amounts of energy. Recycled steel is only considered ‘clean’ if it is recovered in furnaces that use green electricity. There is competition for this electricity, for example, for recharging electric vehicles.

The Energy Institute at the University of Sheffield carries out energy research across a wide spectrum of fields, including renewable, nuclear and conventional energy generation, energy storage, energy use and carbon capture, utilisation and storage technology. Its multi- and interdisciplinary research teams work with industry and government on sustainable solutions.


Contact: Sophie Armour, Media & PR Officer at the University of Sheffield: 07751 400 287 / 0114 222 3687 / sophie.armour@sheffield.ac.uk

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