Making metal was accountable for about 7% of world greenhouse gasoline emissions in 2020. That’s as a result of steelmakers in nations like China, Japan and South Korea have lengthy relied on fossil fuels like coal to make metal in blast furnaces.
But change is coming, because the world works to decarbonise. Researchers and steelmakers are exploring new methods of creating metal with out utilizing coal.
If the transfer to inexperienced metal gathers velocity, Australia could possibly be left behind. That’s as a result of despite the fact that we’re the world’s largest exporter of iron ore, a number of the new strategies depend on ore with the next purity than we at the moment export. Coal exporters may additionally lose earnings, as we’re the biggest exporter of the coking coal burnt in furnaces utilizing present expertise.
To keep away from this, we should always plan for a inexperienced metal future. Our current report on alternatives for Australian trade to decarbonise suggests that is potential. Australia could make the transition to inexperienced metal and stay a serious international participant.
Why would Australia be affected by a shift to inexperienced metal?
Emerging steelmaking applied sciences are nicely alongside the trail to growth. Sweden produced the primary batch of metal made with out coal in 2021.
This metal was made utilizing a direct lowered iron-electric arc furnace course of, which may be powered with renewable power and inexperienced hydrogen. While the pilot schemes are promising, this expertise may take till the late 2030s to be out there at scale.
Australian Industry Energy Transitions Initiative, Author supplied
The drawback for Australia is that this method wants excessive purity ore. At current, the majority of our iron ore exports would merely not be suitable, as there are too many impurities.
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Australia exports two fundamental varieties of iron ore: hematite and magnetite.
Hematite is mined in Western Australia’s Pilbara. It’s a naturally higher-grade ore (56–62% iron) and makes up virtually all (96%) of our exports.
Magnetite is a decrease grade ore (25-40% iron) which wants further processing. This processing, nevertheless, produces ore with extra iron content material, fewer impurities and fewer waste rock (often called gangue) than hematite.
It’s additionally, because the title suggests, magnetic. That makes it potential to effectively separate iron from waste rock utilizing magnets.
Why does this matter? Because this processing converts decrease grade iron ore right into a product suitable with direct lowered iron-electric arc furnace expertise.
You would possibly surprise why it’s essential to eliminate waste rock. Doesn’t it slough off within the furnace? In a conventional blast furnace, that is true. But within the direct discount course of, the iron ore doesn’t truly soften. And the subsequent step – the electrical arc furnace – can’t deal with too many contaminants.
Australian Industry Energy Transitions Initiative, Author supplied
Hematite or magnetite?
This leaves us with a predicament.
Our main iron ore export, hematite, received’t be capable to provide inexperienced steelmakers utilizing one of many main applied sciences. But our a lot smaller ore kind, magnetite, may.
If we develop new strategies of processing hematite to permit it for use in inexperienced steelmaking, we may maintain present mines open and protect present markets. But it will imply vital analysis and growth to make potential commercially viable strategies.
The different choice is to speed up mining of magnetite, as a result of processing this sort of ore is nicely understood.
Some Australian miners are already heading down this path. Fortescue’s Iron Bridge magnetite venture within the Pilbara is scheduled to start manufacturing this quarter.
Magnetite can be recognised as a possibility in South Australia, given it makes up 90% of the state’s ore physique. The state authorities has set a goal of fifty million tonnes per 12 months by 2030.
To guarantee expanded mining of magnetite is sustainable, we’d like sturdy benchmarks to restrict emissions and broader environmental impacts from new mine services.
That’s as a result of the precise mining of iron ore is an emissions-intensive trade, given it depends on heavy equipment. But our modelling exhibits there are pathways to progress right here too, with electrification and gasoline switching.
Flickr, CC BY
Are different inexperienced metal strategies higher suited to Pilbara ore?
The direct discount methodology being pioneered in Sweden isn’t the one solution to clear up steelmaking.
We checked out a variety of potential low-emissions steelmaking strategies, a few of which may make use of Australia’s present hematite exports.
Australian steelmaker Bluescope and multinational miner Rio Tinto are exploring one other methodology, utilizing direct discount to eliminate oxygen, melting the ore to take away impurities, after which utilizing a primary oxygen furnace to make metal. This, they hope, will allow them to maintain utilizing Pilbara hematite ore.
Other rising steelmaking strategies, reminiscent of electrolytic steelmaking, also needs to be developed to make sure there are many choices for using hematite in zero emissions steelmaking sooner or later.
Fortescue Future Industries not too long ago introduced they’ve succeeded in producing zero carbon iron utilizing an electrolyser and a membrane, however thus far haven’t supplied particulars of the method.
It’s laborious to provide concrete timelines for these modifications, as a change at this scale would require coordinated effort. Each of those applied sciences requires vital funding and an enormous build-up of dependable, cost-competitive renewable power and inexperienced hydrogen manufacturing.
Planning and motion is required now
As you’ll think about, steelmaking firms plan for his or her vegetation to final a long time. This timeframe means selections being made now will have an effect on emissions sooner or later.
It’s important Australia is ready for the shift to inexperienced metal. We’ll want a nationwide technique to futureproof iron ore manufacturing, and iron and metal provide chain roadmaps to get suppliers, finance, shoppers and decision-makers on the identical web page in working to take the fossil fuels out of industries.
Red dust, yellow solar, inexperienced metal: how Australia may gain advantage from a worldwide shift to emissions-free metal
Dr Tessa Leach works for Climateworks Centre. She is a member of the Australian Industry Energy Transitions Initiative, which obtained funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
Dr Tyra Horngren works for Climateworks Centre. She is a member of the Australian Industry Energy Transitions Initiative, which obtained funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.