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Steel Producers Take Center Stage in Energy Evolution

Feb. 17, 2021
Steel makers are no strangers to technology and innovation, a reality that will prove instrumental as they work to meet the evolving needs within the energy market.

Historically, steel has provided the heartbeat for manufacturers, enabling the production of a wide array of durable goods. Understandably, the willingness to embrace technology and innovation have fueled steel's stronghold on so many industries. This is most noticeable in the ongoing development of new material grades to deliver new capabilities and meet the needs of growing market trends. 

In recent years, no market trend has been a big of a driver as the evolving energy space.

The whole world is changing to a lower carbon economy, explains Murali Manohar, Ph.D., P.E., head of plates, energy and infrastructure products at ArcelorMittal Global R&D - East Chicago. “From a fuels point of view, there is a global movement or progression from coal and oil to natural gas and eventually hydrogen,” he says. “Global warming and ocean acidification are forcing us to look at reducing CO2 emissions, and therefore the carbon footprint.”

For steel producers this trend translates to a growing need for some meaningful changes. “As an industry, we are emitting a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” he says. “With such a high carbon footprint, we need to explore what can we do to reduce our contribution to CO2 emissions. What can we do in the plants to make sure that we do not emit so much carbon? Or if we do emit, can we capture it and use for something else rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. It is the co2 levels in the atmosphere that's causing the current problems of both global warming and ocean acidification.”

The HYBRIT approach

Globally, steel providers recognize the need for innovative approaches to address the industry’s large carbon footprint. Specifically, decarbonization has been the primary focus of the HYBRIT initiative, a future focused innovation group started in 2016 by SSAB, LKAB and Vattenfall.

SSAB’s goal is to be the first steel company in the world to bring fossil-free steel to the market in 2026 and practically fossil free by 2045. According to stated goals, “SSAB aims to replace coking coal, traditionally needed for ore-based steelmaking, with fossil-free electricity and hydrogen.”

SSAB recently investigated the use of fossil-free energy sources, primarily biomaterial sidestreams, to replace fossil fuels in certain steelmaking processes, for example rolling processes using its Finland plant as the test subject. The prefeasibility study discussed in a December release indicates, “it would be possible to replace a significant amount of fossil fuel consumption with felling and other bio-based sidestream components at the Raahe mill.”

“Regarding biofuels, the project studied the possibilities of collecting, transporting and utilizing, for example, various felling and other bio-based sidestreams from the Baltic Sea Region. The results of the prefeasibility study were positive and the most promising technical solutions based on these results will be developed in follow-up projects currently being planned. The Raahe site will act as the reference site in these projects,” says Harri Leppänen, director, environment and safety at SSAB in a statement.

Currently, ironmaking accounts for around 90% of SSAB’s carbon dioxide emissions. “The Energy4HYBRIT prefeasibility study and the planned follow-up projects based on it will focus on the 10% of carbon dioxide emissions remaining after the reduction of iron ore, originating in numerous other steelmaking processes than ironmaking.

Understanding energy opportunities

As the whole world moves more towards hydrogen, a dedication to innovation will be key. And, there are exciting opportunities arising for new steel solutions, explains Manohar. “Pipes become a very important part in transporting fuel sources moving from oil to natural gas and eventually hydrogen,” he says. “There are initiatives now looking at whether or not we can convert the existing pipe infrastructure to carry hydrogen.”

Manohar continues, “We know we're not there yet. We may find out that we need new pipes or in some cases we may be able to carry blends, such as 10% hydrogen and 90% natural gas. While today's line pipe is significantly stronger than the pipe it will replace, the ongoing evolution will surface an array of new opportunities for steel, whether it is a different grade, or a need for cleaner or tougher properties. As constant innovators, we need to look at how to use steel as an enabler for this transition.”

Of course, the eventual move to hydrogen or renewables (solar, wind, biofuels, etc.) is long-term and the industry will turn to steel makers for intermediate level solutions. “It brings about interesting possibilities. None of these renewables are very cost effective right now compared to the current fossil fuels, but even with a carbon footprint, natural gas could be the viable transition since it reduces co2 emissions into the atmosphere,” he says.

Pipe improvements

Research conducted by Manohar’s team at the East Chicago innovation lab has provided some unique capabilities to ArcelorMittal's pipe and tube business – especially crucial as energy infrastructure becomes a stronger priority.  The ongoing trend has prompted ArcelorMittal to invest in new capabilities enabling better form and test the pipe it is developing for the energy market in particular. A market where product consistency is crucial.

“When the pipe goes into service or into the application, the properties are quite different from those measured at a steel mill. Whether starting from plate or coil, the material properties change as the forming process progresses,” he says. “Our new capabilities allow us to more accurately follow the change in properties through the entire process.”

For instance, with its roll bending technology, it can bend plate into the desired pipe dimensions, and also make measurements to determine how the properties will change as different forming processes are utilized in the field. 

Additionally, its ring expansion tester could prove to be a difference maker, especially considering the deviation from traditional testing methodologies. Understandably, when producing a final pipe, key acceptance criterion exists based on measuring actual strength compared to the design strength. Traditionally, what happens is a company will cut out a strap from a piece of the pipe, flatten the strap and test its mechanical properties. "However, the flattening process itself changes the properties of the pipe material – meaning what this test actually measures is the changed properties and not the actual properties of the pipe itself," he says.

According to Manohar, the issue rests in the reality that each company flattens and tests pipe in slightly different ways. "For example, we had a joint industry project a few years ago, where the same pipe was cut into different pieces and sent to different test labs. Each lab came up with a different number for the strength," he says. "Everyone agreed there is too much variability in this flattened strap testing, but nobody was willing to do anything about it."

ArcelorMittal's ring expansion tester takes a much different approach by allows it to cut out a ring from the pipe and test the yield strength of the ring itself. By eliminating the flattening process, it provides a reliable measurement of what is actually going into service. The odds are good that this approach might become established as a referee test.

"This would enable us to use the test to limit instances where companies are rejecting perfectly good pipe," he says. "It is expensive to make several thousand tons of pipe, and when quality pipe is rejected because of an inconsistent flattening test, which can create unnecessary costs and project delays."

New reality: With electrification moving closer and closer to the hydrogen economy, the distinction between many of the industries steel providers serve is blurring, explains Manohar. “Do wind towers fall under energy or construction? And once hydrogen fueling stations start to materialize is it automotive or energy,” he says.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, steel providers ultimately need to remain innovative. “It's really not something of the future, it has already started,” says Manohar. “It is just question of how soon until we adapt and how long can we afford to delay as global warming intensifies.”

Read Part 1 of the steel series: The Changing Landscape of Steel

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