Göran Nyström: ‘Fossil-free electricity key to steel industry’s hydrogen shift’

Göran Nyström has been EVP of Group Marketing & Technology with steelmaker Ovako for nearly a decade. Prior to that, Nyström spent 25 years at engineering group Sandvik in a variety of sales, marketing, and supply roles. He sees great potential for Ovako and other players in Sweden’s steel industry to serve as role models globally for decarbonizing production with the help of hydrogen.

What has Ovako been doing to reduce its carbon footprint?

Sustainability is an integrated area in our business and has been for a long time, where reduction of our carbon footprint is one important aspect. When we are looking at our carbon footprint, our figures encompass our “cradle-to-gate” footprint, which includes everything that affects our carbon footprint. You will see many other definitions, with some companies trying to show as low a value as possible. So, they shrink it down to near-zero using every trick in the book.

But we feel it’s important to include the whole value chain from “cradle-to-gate”. We generate 400 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide per tonne of finished hot-rolled product, and I think the average in the world for steelmakers is 2,600 kilogrammes. We are well over two tonnes below the global average. Furthermore, if we compare ourselves to blast furnaces in China, for instance, we are perhaps three tonnes below. That’s a very significant environmental advantage that we offer. We're trying to explain to customers that switching from one steel supplier to another, greener, supplier will make a direct positive impact on the environment.

Göran Nyström, Ovako
Hydrogen test at Ovako

How can hydrogen help?

Hydrogen fuel is created by using fossil-free energy. It has the potential to provide clean power for manufacturing, transportation, domestic and commercial heating, and more. And its only by-product is water, which represents a huge environmental dividend over traditional carbon-heavy fossil fuels. If the whole world used hydrogen for heating steel, I calculated there would be a global saving of about 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Hydrogen is an indirect way of electrifying a process. In our recent test with Linde we used hydrogen to heat steel before rolling. Every other steelmaker uses fossil fuels for this process. Inserting hydrogen into the process makes a big difference, as we have proven with Linde. Linde has already been a leader in oxyfuels, where instead of burning in furnaces with air, you are using oxygen. Using this method, of course, you're avoiding a lot of the nitrous oxides. So it's really good for the environment for the burning to use oxygen.

The second thing hydrogen does for us is that it makes the electrolyser approach viable. As we know, the electrolysis of water provides both oxygen and hydrogen. Most other projects release the oxygen and just use the hydrogen, but we are also set up to use oxygen in our furnaces. We will benefit from both the hydrogen and the oxygen together.

We want to show the rest of the world that this is a viable approach. So, we want to set up the first electrolyser in line with our production, along with 100 percent renewables and call it a global test bed. To show the world that this is fully feasible, it's economical, quick to set up, and is good for the environment. We need help with the investment required for such a project, but we have options.

Can you tell us more about the test project with Linde recently?

Our first work together was in September 2019. That was in Munich where we tested our burners and furnaces and switched between propane and hydrogen just to see the burner in action. That was very encouraging because propane and hydrogen are remarkably different molecules. The hydrogen flows so much more quickly through the pipeline, so it generates the same effect as burning propane. And hydrogen is actually a much more reliable source. It burns with much greater stability than propane.

Then in March 2020, we had the full-scale trial. The trial, in which steel was heated using hydrogen instead of propane before steel rolling at our mill in Hofors, was successful. The testing of the steel we produced showed that heating with hydrogen did not adversely affect the quality. Given the right conditions, it was clear we could use hydrogen heating for furnaces at all our rolling mills, thereby drastically reducing our already world-leading low carbon footprint from cradle to gate.

What are the challenges for Ovako to enact this shift more comprehensively?

The problem right now is that electrolysers are a little bit too expensive and carbon dioxide cost is a little bit too low. So, we are looking for funding for this investment. But once it’s up...let me  tell you...it is going to be the absolute quickest, most cost efficient, and most climate-efficient solution of all the hydrogen projects I've seen.

Hydrogen test at Ovako.

And how can the world make that shift?

What the world needs to do is close fossil fuel-fired coal power plants and traditional blast furnaces for steelmaking. I mean, those are two big sources of emissions. Hydrogen, however, doesn't make sense unless you have electricity from other sources. The key is easy access to fossil-free electricity. Once you have that set-up, the pieces will all fall into place.

The world should be quite clear that something really exciting is happening with hydrogen. 

Read more about Ovako here.

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