Steel making is critical – and a critically bad carbon problem. At Port Kembla, the race is on to clean it up.

Our civilisation is built of steel. It’s in your car, microwave, house, and cutlery drawer. But it’s also now a threat – accounting for some 8% of total global CO2 emissions.

Now the New South Wales’ Port Kembla Steelworks is attempting to square the circle. It’s a massive undertaking, and one with immense implications for Wollongong and Australia as a whole.

The steelworks burns coking coal to heat the blast furnaces needed to smelt iron ore. But between 1.5 and 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide are released with each tonne of steel poured from the vats. That’s why BlueScope Steel has signed up with the University of Wollongong (UOW) and the Future Fuels Cooperative Research Centre to help decarbonise the process.

The $1.8 million project, which includes a $924,784 grant from The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), will assess the technical and economic feasibility of available alternatives to coal.

It’s a pressing issue.

“To meet our net-zero targets, Australia needs to reduce emissions from the iron ore mining sector and steel industry,” says ARENA CEO Darren Miller. “As the world’s largest exporter of iron ore, Australia has an important role to play in lowering emissions across the steel value chain.”

Port kembler steel works
Credit: Port Kembla Steel Works

Under the international Paris Agreement guidelines, steel producers must cut carbon output by at least 30% before 2030. Only then can a net-zero goal be viable by 2050.

It’s an ambition that has proven difficult to achieve, Miller says. But it’s also rapidly becoming an economic imperative.

Governments and global industries are seeking suppliers with the best green credentials. This is why seven of the world’s 10 biggest steel-producing nations – and the five largest steel producers (ArcelorMittal, Baowu, Nippon, HBIS and POSCO) – have initiated emission reduction projects.

“As the world’s largest exporter of iron ore, Australia has an important role to play in lowering emissions across the steel value chain”

Darren Miller, Australian Renewable Energy Agency CEO

Now, along with aluminium, steel has been designated a priority under the Australian Government’s Low Emissions Technology Statements.

Director of the UOW’s Steel Research Hub Dr Paul Zulli says the science behind clean energy and sustainability will be combined with engineering pragmatism to “help advance a range of innovative solutions for future, lower emissions steelmaking at Port Kembla”.

Port kembler steel works
Dr Paul Zulli. Credit: Port Kembla Steel Works

The multidisciplinary project will involve “site-specific evaluations of all potential emission reduction opportunities … and pilot-scale test work of biochar pneumatic conveying”, he says.

Alternative methods involve different furnace fuels or entirely new electrolysis technologies. Natural gas generators and furnaces are 50% more CO2 efficient than coal. And hydrogen, while not a fossil fuel, must be manufactured cleanly and efficiently at large scales to be viable.

UOW Energy Futures Network Director Ty Christopher says one energy alternative being examined for the steelworks is the university’s Hysata hydrogen production technology. It hopes to deliver low-cost hydrogen through a highly efficient electrolysis cell needing only simple infrastructure to operate.

Hysata’s website states that “Electricity makes up most of the cost of green hydrogen and therefore, the most efficient electrolyser will deliver the lowest cost hydrogen. Efficiency wins.”

Similar demonstration projects are underway the world over. And that’s why comparative performances must be assessed to ensure Australian steel’s market competitiveness.

Christopher remains confident. “The application of the Hysata hydrogen electrolyser technology to industry has the potential to significantly shift the economics of green hydrogen production, bringing the $2/kg target within reach,” he says.

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