- German steelmakers have successfully powered a steel blast furnace using just hydrogen.
- Steel is highly renewable once it’s manufactured, so removing reliance on coal is a huge step.
- Hydrogen is not available enough yet to replace coal, but scientists are researching new ways to make more hydrogen.
Steelmakers in Germany have taken a big step toward carbon neutral steel production by using hydrogen to power a blast furnace, reports Renew Economy. This is the first demonstration of its kind. The company that did the demonstration, Thyssenkrupp, has committed to reducing emissions by 30 percent by 2030. In the steel industry, where production of the world’s greatest alloy has been exclusively powered by coal before this, reducing emissions is a daunting and major goal.
To make 1,000 kilograms of steel, a blast furnace environment requires 780 kilograms of coal. Because of that, steelmaking around the world uses one billion tons of coal each year. The U.S. Energy Information Association says Germany used about 250 million tons of coal in 2017. That same year, China used 4 billion tons and the United States used about 700 million tons.
But Germany also has a long and illustrious history of steelmaking. Thyssenkrupp, and its blast furnace where the hydrogen demonstration took place, are both in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia—yes, that Westphalia. The state is so linked with German industry that it was called “Land von Kohle und Stahl”: the land of coal and steel.
As heavy manufacturing and industry declined over time, that’s also given North Rhine-Westphalia one of the highest rates of unemployment in Germany. This could certainly ease up if the region became the first place for carbon neutral steelmaking, and Thyssenkrupp’s goals have them on track to reduce 50 percent by 2050.
Cleaner steelmaking has seemed like as much of a pipe dream as cold fusion. Renew Economy explains: “Many have argued, including the leaders of both major Australian political parties and various members of the coal lobby, that coal will be required for decades to come, citing the need for coal in steel production to supply materials to the renewables industry.”
In other words, even though steel itself is such a recyclable and reusable product, the sheer quantity of coal it requires to make is enough to prop up the flagging coal industry. In the U.S., the coal industry is trying to bounce back not just from decades of decline but from the failed promise of new coal jobs and funding by the current administration. Coal around the world has counted on this relationship to steelmaking as the last and most resistant market.
Hydrogen isn’t a perfect fuel option either—scientists are still searching for ways to manufacture “loose” hydrogen so it can be more plentiful and less costly. Ironically, the two previously most common ways to separate hydrogen were by using fossil fuels. Before anyone can plan to meet even a fraction of the world’s steel needs with hydrogen blast furnaces, both industries will need to upscale a great deal.
Still, this proof of concept is promising and extremely cool. Germany has had a tangled relationship with coal in the public eye: When the country began phasing out, then stopped phasing out, then started simply not building new plants for nuclear energy, the difference was made up by even more coal power plants. Electricity is one of the other major uses of coal and another opportunity to supplant with plentiful hydrogen.
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