Steel is everywhere. It’s in our cars, our houses, our bridges, and so much more. Although an invaluable material for societies around the world, steel stomps out a massive global carbon footprint, accounting for up to 7 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. These emissions are pumped out throughout the numerous steps of making steel, a process that’s looked roughly the same for over a thousand years – until now.
Swedish steel company SSAB has partnered with mining company LKAB and energy company Vattenfall to reinvent the process of making steel to ensure it’s fossil-free from start to finish. Known as the HYBRIT project, SSAB uses the technology to manufacture an end product exactly the same as before – sturdy and versatile steel – via a new process that doesn’t produce carbon dioxide, which will help reduce global carbon emissions greatly.
This pioneering project has already demonstrated its potential by creating the first vehicle made of fossil-free steel, but this is just the beginning of the story: from boats to buildings, the possibilities of fossil-free steel are endless
“The steel industry can´t continue to emit massive amounts of carbon dioxide,” says Eva Petursson, Executive Vice President Research & Innovation at SSAB. “Addressing the root cause of the emissions is part of our mission to become completely fossil-free by 2045.”
“SSAB is already one of the world´s most CO2-efficient steel companies,” she continues. “But we want to do more.”
Steel is a brilliantly tough alloy of iron and carbon. To make it, iron needs to be separated from oxygen and impurities while a small amount of carbon needs to be added. Conventionally, this is an energy-intensive process, whereby coal and coke are placed in a blast furnace and raised to searing hot temperatures to remove oxygen from the iron ore.
In the HYBRIT process, the initial iron ore is sourced using fossil-free mining. Then, instead of using coal and coke, the conversion of iron ore to iron will use hydrogen gas that has been obtained from the electrolysis of water using electricity from a fossil-free source. Once solid iron (sponge iron) is produced, it’s melted down in an electric arc furnace. The only by-product at this stage is water, not carbon dioxide. And just like that, fossil-free steel is produced.
To show the potential of its product, SSAB partnered with Volvo to produce the world's first vehicle made of fossil-free steel, a dumper that could be used to haul loads in mining and quarrying.
SSAB is now fine-tuning this novel process of making fossil-free steel, bringing costs down and scaling up to mass production, so it can help other industries bring down their carbon footprints. In the northern Swedish city of Luleå, the HYBRIT collaboration has launched a pilot plant that will see the production of fossil-free sponge iron, the product of reducing iron oxide in the form of iron ore. They also aim to open a demonstration plant in Gällivare that will be up and running in 2026 with the goal of producing some 1.3 million tonnes of fossil-free sponge iron.
Importantly, fossil-free steel maintains the quality and properties found in its conventionally produced counterpart, meaning it can be used for the exact same applications it is used for today. Fossil-free steel has arrived and holds the power to revolutionize all kinds of industries across the world.
“The beauty is that there are no disadvantages,” says Petursson. “When available at larger scale, fossil-free steel can be used in all the same products that today’s steel is used for, but with virtually no impact on the environment.”
Find out more about SSAB’s development of fossil-free steel right here.
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