A Peek Into the North American Steel and Aluminum Industries
In recent years, metals producers are actively working towards decarbonizing the industry. This has led to breakthroughs in the use of hydrogen, renewable energy and digital transformation in producing green steel.
The following questions arise in relation to the production of green steel and aluminum:
- How can green steel and aluminum manufactured in the US be protected against imported ones with a high CO2 footprint?
- How can producers leverage renewable energy for cheaper and optimized production?
- In pursuit of sustainability, how can aluminum producers achieve the net zero target?
These are some of the key topics discussed at the AISTECH conference in the US and the Future Aluminum Forum in Canada in May 2023.
Current Progress and Challenges in the US Steel Industry
The Town Hall Forum at AISTECH 2023 addressed the global supply chain challenges. Key topics included the importance of green steel and the role of nuclear energy in future steel production. On the topic of green steel, it was important to note and celebrate Cleveland Cliffs' successful carbon friendly achievement in Middletown Works in Ohio, substituting coke with hydrogen which was blended with natural gas. Hence, they are the first company in Americas to inject hydrogen into a blast furnace, which was done towards the decarbonization of blast furnaces. The process replaced the release of carbon with water vapor. This was highlighted as marking a promising milestone in reducing emissions and maintaining operating efficiency and product quality.
Nucor’s investment in NuScale, a small-scale modular reactor operational plant, is designed to make a huge difference in meeting energy demand use especially when applied globally and considering the challenge of producers being located close to the grid. Due to its low cost and reduced CO2 footprint, steel producers in the US prefer to use energy from nuclear sources.
Traci L. Forrester, Executive Vice President of Environmental and Sustainability at Cleveland-Cliffs Inc, said that they could not rely solely on renewable energies currently, as they do not have all the resources to sustain it.
However, in order to meet the CO2 reduction targets, it is important to reduce
- scope one emissions, which are direct emissions resulting from activities within an organization’s control,
- scope two, which are indirect emissions from purchased energy for own use and
- scope three is other indirect emissions that are outside of an organization’s control such as transportation.
Using renewable energy offers the opportunity to reduce scope two emissions for steel producers who depend on wind and solar energy. There are also customers of steel producers that are skeptical about using nuclear power.
In such cases, experts suggest that renewable energy becomes an important alternative, especially with regulations that do not support the use of nuclear power everywhere.
As the US steel industry races towards greener production, stakeholders deliberated on how green steel producers can be rewarded and protected against pricing competition from imported steel with high CO2 footprint. While steel customers actively patronize green steel producers, measures at the borders are aimed at reducing the influx of steel with high CO2 emissions from entering the US.
Further initiatives towards achieving green steel was to create transparency in tracking the CO2 footprint of steel products. Some organizations transparently inform the customer about the carbon footprint of the products but are biased towards the use of scrap. Customers, on the other hand, need to be educated on the technicalities in reporting carbon footprint.
Experts projected that the use of AI and machine learning will be an increased but still with retained workforce.
Within the next three decades, automation and digital transformation will enable specialized steelmaking at a global scale. With distributed power grids available for renewable energy, producers will prefer to move close to the energy source. This will lead to smaller facilities being used as opposed to large operations, which are prevalent today. Producers like US Steel and Cleveland-Cliffs Inc, are already working towards net zero by 2050.
Growing Opportunities and Transformations for Canada’s Aluminum Industry
The aluminum industry in Canada and North America has made significant progress as highlighted during the Future Aluminum Forum, organized by Quartz Business Media and aluQuebec. It is also making huge leaps towards decarbonizing the production. North American aluminum producers mentioned that there is a need for carbon free sustainable materials, which are traceable and sourced responsibly.
Rio Tinto, a leading producer of aluminum with reduced carbon emission, presented their use of sustainable materials and many collaborations with various industry giants. One of such cases is their materials partnership with Ford to achieve net zero. They also have the first primary aluminum smelter in North America with an incorporated recycling center. Part of their collaborations includes Elysis with Alcoa in 2018. Elysis, by Alcoa, is a technology that creates carbon free aluminum through carbon free smelting. It eliminates greenhouse gases and emits oxygen as a byproduct. This encourages other aluminum producers to stop building smelters with traditional parts and also to retrofit their current smelters with this technology to reduce their carbon footprint.
Aluminum Dunkerque, the largest primary smelter in the EU, is currently veering down this path with their Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) project, which is a key technology being used to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Despite Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) being a well-known technology in use in a number of industries, it is apparently not yet entirely suitable for primary aluminum smelting because the CO2 in the gases involved are not concentrated enough to be economically viable. This is why aluminum companies have to develop partnerships in order to adapt carbon capture to primary aluminum smelting, transport and store the CO2 captured in the smelter, and offer the CO2 to partners for reuse.
Net Zero All Around
Despite the stark contrast in beliefs, priorities, and progress between the steel and aluminum industries in North America, they both seem to be heading in the right direction towards net zero by 2050 and further exploration of the use of AI.
There were many identical mentions of the use of the various types of digital twins in various projects and facilities. A digital twin of a production line is the user-friendly interface between human operators and the machine (line, plant) control system.
They all also agreed on the need to hire more and provide good working conditions and training for all employees.
How does PSI Metals support steelmakers in their decarbonization journey?
Chidi Sybil Aku
Marketing and Document Manager
PSI Metals GmbH
Chidi Aku is the Marketing Manager for North America at PSI Metals. She joined the company in August 2021 and is working on campaigns to increase PSI Metals North America Inc.’s presence in unclaimed parts of the market. She is also in charge of document management for sales documents such as annexes and proposals.
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