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Canadian steel research focused on low-carbon goals

Peter Caulfield
Canadian steel research focused on low-carbon goals

The Canadian Steel Producers Association (CSPA) wants to see this country’s steel industry reach net-zero CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions by 2050 – less than 30 years from now.

CSPA president Catherine Cobden says the association chose 2050 “to align with governments and global objectives emerging around the world.”

“Given the scale of the changes ahead of us and the need for technological breakthroughs, we know this is going to take time and significant investment,” said Cobden.  “Considering these factors, we would not be able to adopt such change sooner.” 

The Canadian steel industry is already off to a running start. Cobden says two companies recently announced major changes that reduced CO2 by six million tonnes.

“This is a significant step forward, but the journey gets harder from here,”  she said. “There is limited room for further improvement based on existing technology.”

Because the steel industry needs investment to develop new technologies to help it reach its climate goals, and needs it quickly, it is forming research and development partnerships with government, industry, and educational institutions.

For example, Canadian steel producers are part of a decarbonization collaboration called the Canadian Carbonization Research Association, which is researching new technologies that can be used in steel making.

One of these is a thermal process called biomass torrefaction, in which part of the biomass decomposes, which transforms it from a low-quality woody biomass to a high-quality solid biofuel.

In steel production, biomass torrefaction has the potential to replace metallurgical coal all or in part by firing the coal and biomass together.

Research is also being undertaken on the direct reduction of iron (DRI) in the steel making process.

DRI is the removal of oxygen from iron ore, or other iron bearing materials, in their solid state, without melting it in a blast furnace.

The reducing agents are carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which come from natural gas, synthetic gas or coal.

The direct reduction process that is used to make DRI is in use all over the world.  In Canada, two DRI modules are in operation at Contrecoeur, Que., not far from Montreal.

Natural gas is currently used in the DRI process, with research underway to replace some or all of the hydrocarbon gas mixture with a biogas in the future.

A third area of research is a potential breakthrough innovation that brings together steel making with an electrolytic process.

According to its proponents, the process, which can be supplied by renewable energies, will transform iron oxides into steel plate with a significant reduction of energy use.

Cobden says much of the research is taking place at the laboratories of CanmetENERGY, a Canadian government organization that performs research and technology in the field of clean energy.

CanmetENERGY has labs in Devon, Alta., Ottawa, and Varennes, Que.

Additional research is underway at the McMaster University Steel Research Centre on making steel with hydrogen.

Instead of coke in a blast furnace, hydrogen is used to remove the oxides from iron ore (from which steel is made), creating liquid iron and pure water.

Hydrogen is a clean fuel that is being increasingly used in transportation and power generation. It is also being investigated as a way to decarbonize industrial processes, such as iron and steel production, that want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Another project, at McGill University, is investigating the effect of mineralogy on electrowinning, which is a widely used technology in modern metal recovery, mining and refining.

Cobden says the research has the potential to help the Canadian steel industry reach some important low-carbon goals.

“Producing a viable biocarbon can allow current blast furnaces to substitute a biocarbon for fossil coal, or some coke,” she said. “Biocarbon in EAF (electric arc furnace) steel making can reduce the consumption of fossil carbon during the process. 

“Electrolysis technology is farther down the road.  It has the potential to be a near-zero carbon route to make steel, depending on the source of the electricity.”

Cobden says Canada already produces some of the lowest carbon steel in the world. 

“According to a recent global bench-marking study by Global Efficiency Intelligence in the United States, Canadian producers are ranked first and second-best performing, depending on production type, compared to the major steel producing nations in the world,” she said. “When Canadian customers buy domestically produced steel they not only support Canada’s economy and jobs, they also are assured they are buying the greenest steel possible.”

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