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Boston Metal looks to disrupt and decarbonise steel and iron ore industries

Boston Metal is looking to decarbonise the steel-making sector at the same time as helping iron ore producers with their Scope 3 emissions dilemma.

The concept of ‘green steel’ has been widely discussed over the last few years, with LKAB, SSAB and Vattenfall’s HYBRIT project being the most cited case study, thanks to both its advanced stage of development – it has already produced fossil-free steel on a trial basis – and its revolutionary way of introducing hydrogen in place of coke as the iron ore reduction method in the steel-making process.

SSAB and LKAB are leveraging HYBRIT to completely transform their production processes: SSAB is building new hydrogen-based steel making facilities able to match its current base of 8.8 Mt/y of steel by 2030 and LKAB is moving from iron ore pellet production to direct reduced iron (DRI) in line with this.

Tadeu Carneiro, Chairman & CEO of Boston Metal

The ambitions of such a project are impressive, but can such a green steel-making process be applied to the circa-1,900 Mt of steel currently being produced for the world market?

The answer is no, according to Tadeu Carneiro, Chairman & CEO of Boston Metal.

He expands on this: “There are four ways of reducing iron oxides into a metal for steel-making. One is through the use of carbon; another way is through using another metal as a reductant, which is currently not feasible; the third one is with hydrogen, which is possible – as HYBRIT has shown – but is limited to premium iron ores; and the last is through our solution.”

The solution in question is – like HYBRIT – a green option, but – unlike HYBRIT – is applicable to all iron ores, regardless of grade, according to Carneiro.

Boston Metal’s process, which it calls Molten Oxide Electrolysis (MOE), works by adding iron ore to an electrolytic cell and passing electricity through said cell. The electricity both breaks the bonds of the iron oxides present, as well as heats up the whole batch within the cell, creating molten iron that sinks to the bottom of the cell ready for collection (tapping).

During the bond breaking and heating process, MOE produces oxygen as a by-product, with the resultant oxides forming the electolyte and remaining in said electrolyte (floating above the liquid iron).

“Because it is molten, the iron gets separated from the electrolyte and sits in the bottom of the cell,” Carneiro said. “As the molten iron is heavier than the electrolyte, the impurities float to the top and can be tapped separately.”

So, not only do companies using MOE get a molten iron product, they also get a slag by-product that can be used in various applications in the construction industry – all without using coking coal or coke.

“In traditional blast furnace-based steel making, you have to pelletise or sinter the iron ore, you need to process coking coal into coke and you then have to mix the two in the blast furnace and blow air to get pig iron,” Carneiro explained. “This pig iron contains around 4% carbon, which needs to be burnt off through, typically, a process in the basic oxygen furnace to get molten iron.”

Boston Metal’s MOE process gets to this same point using just iron ore and electricity, according to Carneiro.

“All of this is replaced by a battery of cells that, when assembled in significant numbers, can compete with blast furnaces in terms of molten iron capacity,” he said.

Carneiro expanded on what he meant by ‘significant numbers’, offering up an example of 300 MOE modules assembled in two lines of 150 able to produce 1 Mt of steel.

And all of this is in an incremental capital expenditure range within the millions of dollars, instead of the billions of dollars often required to build a traditional steel-making plant.

This puts a green process in the reach of not only steel-makers but iron ore producers, according to Carneiro.

“If you have green electricity at an iron ore mine, you can bring the cells there, melt the iron and ship a metallic product to steel-makers,” Carneiro said.

This pure iron product can be remelted elsewhere and processed into flat and long steel products for the automotive and construction industries.

“This represents a higher value-added product for iron ore miners, enabling them to ship a product that is 40% lighter in terms of weight,” Carneiro explained.

Finding a ‘green’ end-user that brings down a miners’ Scope 3 emissions while holding a molten iron ore product is a lot easier than finding one when shipping iron fines, concentrate or sinter: hence the reason why iron ore miners’ Scope 3 emission goals appear a lot less ambitious than the Scope 1 and 2 targets within their control.

It is no wonder BHP and Vale have been early backers of Boston Metal.

It sounds too good to be true, and there is a reason for that.

From speaking to Carneiro, the company could start producing molten iron through the chosen method today – not at a scale the steel-industry would yet consider commercial, but at a pilot scale at least.

For the commercial process to be considered green, the company would need renewable electricity to do this; and lots of it.

Carneiro doesn’t shy away from this, explaining that MOE will require 4 MWh of electricity per tonne of steel to work at such a scale. This is the equivalent of up to 500 MW for a 1 Mt/y molten iron plant.

The incumbent process Carneiro and his US-based team are looking to take market share from requires 5.5-6 MWh of energy per tonne of steel, while the electric arc furnace (EAF) method of making steel – which uses predominantly scrap metal – has a much smaller electricity requirement.

“If you had 2 billion tonnes of scrap to be melted, the EAF route is the best way to make steel, hands down,” Carneiro admits. “The problem is you don’t have such scrap availability and, in order to increase supply, you would need lots more steel coming from iron ore.”

For reference, the HYBRIT process is expected to require 600 MW of hydrogen electrolyser capacity to 2025 to get LKAB to the 1.3 Mt/y sponge iron (DRI) mark.

Yet, scrap steel is not the only thing in short supply currently. Green electricity is far from abundant, with only the likes of Quebec (hydro power capacity) and some Nordic countries having a plentiful supply – a fact Carneiro acknowledges.

“If you don’t believe that green electricity will be available, abundant, reliable and cheap in the future, you can forget about the MOE process,” he said. “But then you also have to forget about a lot of other processes that are set to use green electricity and the massive amounts of investment the green energy space is seeing on an annual basis.

“Society has decided to go electric and to go electric in a green way, so it is only reasonable to expect that, in the future, electricity will be all of this.”

Carneiro is planning for such a transition, with his company in the process of commissioning a full-size industrial MOE cell at its Woburn, Massachusetts headquarters. This could be ready as early as next month.

It follows a trial of a pilot cell at Brazil-based ferroniobium producer CBMM’s production plant in Araxá, Brazil, where the technology was able to use the same process to turn niobium ore into high-value ferroniobium-based products.

“We were able to prove out the process with CBMM on a smaller scale, which has given us the confidence to make a much bigger cell.”

The company plans to use this bigger cell and, through a subsidiary in Brazil, take advantage of other opportunities to extract value from mining waste using the MOE technology. This could see Boston Metal assemble a battery of MOE cells to manufacture some 5,000-10,000 t of high value-added metals.

While this is deemed ‘pilot scale’ for steel producers, it is sizeable for those producing high value-added products such as niobium, vanadium, tantalum, chrome and others, Carneiro said. And the project will only aide the company’s steel-making ambitions.

“By developing the cell for these high value-added metals, we are finding lots of the answers for the steel-sized cells as well,” he said.

Such groundwork today is preparing the company for a time when steel-makers and iron ore miners have assessed the green electricity landscape and are ready to invest in such technology.

“All the leading steel-making companies have made pledges to be carbon neutral by the 2050s,” Carneiro said. “This means they need to phase out carbon reduction by the mid- to late-2030s. By this point in time, we will be ready to offer our solution on a commercial scale, allowing them to take advantage of the abundance of iron ores – low and high grade – around the world.”

BHP and Tata Steel to partner on low carbon iron and steelmaking tech

BHP has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with India’s Tata Steel, one of the world’s largest steelmakers, with the intention to jointly study and explore low carbon iron and steelmaking technology.

Under the partnership, BHP and Tata Steel intend to collaborate on ways to reduce the emission intensity of the blast furnace steel route, via two priority areas – the use of biomass as a source of energy, and the application of carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) in steel production. The partnership aims to help both companies progress toward their respective climate change goals, and support India’s ambitions to be carbon neutral, BHP said.

The technologies explored in this partnership can potentially reduce emission intensity of integrated steel mills by up to 30%. Importantly these projects demonstrate how abatements applied to the blast furnace iron-making process, which contributes to more than 60% of India’s steel production, can materially reduce the carbon intensity of existing capacity.

Beyond these projects, BHP and Tata Steel have committed to a robust ongoing knowledge exchange that will see both parties explore further collaborations, ecosystems and business opportunities in the steel value chain, and the research and innovation sectors in both India and Australia.

BHP’s Chief Commercial Officer, Vandita Pant, said: “The partnership with Tata Steel highlights the importance of collaborations in being able to successfully identify and implement emission reduction technologies in steelmaking, including by developing abatements that can apply to the existing blast furnace process to incrementally reduce its carbon emissions intensity.”

She also highlighted how BHP can contribute to Tata Steel’s, and the broader steel industry’s role in helping to achieve India’s ambitions to be carbon neutral, particularly as India is expected to see robust steel demand growth over the next three decades, underpinned by a growing population and rising urbanisation.

“India has invested heavily in the blast furnace route for steel production, and crude steel output was 118 Mt last year,” she said. “It is, therefore, critical to innovate and demonstrate pathways to reduce emissions from the blast furnace, while alternative steel pathways emerge and low carbon energy systems scale-up.

“A greener steel industry will be integral for India’s growth and decarbonisation journey, and we intend to work hard with Tata Steel to enable this development and hopefully set a benchmark for others in the industry to emulate and learn from. Finding pathways to net zero for steelmaking is challenging and complex but we believe that by working with industry leaders like Tata Steel, together, we will find solutions more quickly to help reduce carbon emissions in steel production.”

Speaking on the partnership, Tata Steel’s Vice President, Group Strategic Procurement, Rajiv Mukerji, said: “The steel sector will play a critical role in achieving India’s net-zero commitment. Tata Steel is already working on several pilot projects focussed on the development of deep decarbonisation technologies such as CCU, hydrogen-based steelmaking, use of biomass and other alternate ironmaking routes. We believe strategic collaborations are vital in paving the way for innovations to accelerate the deployment of breakthrough technologies at scale and therefore this partnership with BHP is an important step for us.”

Tata Steel and BHP have been heavily involved in establishing partnerships with like-minded industry leaders in reducing emissions in steelmaking. BHP has, in recent years, partnered with global majors POSCO, China Baowu, JFE Steel and HBIS Group to explore greenhouse gas emissions reduction from steelmaking. The combined output of the five steel companies across Asia – in China, India, Japan and South Korea – equates to around 13% of reported global steel production, BHP says.

Fortescue issues ‘industry-leading’ Scope 3 emissions targets

Fortescue Metals Group has announced what it says is an industry-leading target to achieve net zero Scope 3 emissions by 2040, addressing emissions across Fortescue’s entire global value chain, including crude steel manufacturing which accounts for 98% of the company’s Scope 3 emissions.

Fortescue’s approach to reducing Scope 3 emissions is to develop projects and technologies with a focus on reducing emissions from iron and steel making and to work with current and prospective customers on the application of the technology and the supply of green hydrogen and ammonia from Fortescue Future Industries (FFI). Fortescue will also prioritise the decarbonisation of its own fleet of eight ore carriers and engage with shipping partners to reduce, and aiming to eliminate, emissions from shipping.

FFI is targeting the production of 15 Mt of green hydrogen annually by 2030, which will underpin opportunities to work with customers and shipping partners on emissions reduction and elimination projects.

In addition to the long-term goal to achieve net zero Scope 3 emissions by 2040, the following medium-term targets have been set:

  • Enable a reduction in emissions intensity levels from the shipping of Fortescue’s ores by 50% by 2030 from financial year (FY) 2021 levels; and
  • Enable a reduction in emissions intensity levels from steel making by Fortescue’s customers of 7.5% by 2030 from FY21 levels, to 100% by 2040.

Fortescue Chief Executive Officer, Elizabeth Gaines, said: “Climate change is the most pressing issue of our generation and at Fortescue, setting stretch targets is at the core of our culture and values and we are proud to set this goal to tackle emissions across our value chain.

“Fortescue has commenced its transition from a pure play iron ore producer to a green renewables and resources company, underpinned by the world’s first major carbon emission heavy industry operation to set a target to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. This Scope 3 target is consistent with this transition and complements our targets for Scope 1 and 2 emissions reduction.

“Collaboration is integral to driving the rapid transition to green energy, and we remain committed to actively engaging with our customers, suppliers and other key industry participants to facilitate the reduction of emissions. This includes the development of technologies and the supply of green hydrogen and ammonia through FFI, which will provide significant opportunities for the steel, cement and land and sea transport industries to decarbonise.”

To achieve the target, Fortescue and FFI are focused on accelerating a number of key initiatives:

  • Conversion of existing maritime vessels, including Fortescue’s fleet of ore carriers, to be fuelled by green ammonia;
  • Supporting the adoption of green ammonia in new vessel construction;
  • Pursuing opportunities for emissions reduction and elimination in iron and steel making, facilitated by the use of renewable energy and green hydrogen; and
  • Research and development work to produce green iron and cement from Fortescue ores at low temperatures without coal.

FFI Chief Executive Officer, Julie Shuttleworth, said: “Our investments in technologies and research and development are focused on demonstrating that the production of iron ore, cement, iron and steel can operate with renewable energy.

“Our work to decarbonise Fortescue’s iron ore operations will position Fortescue as the first major supplier of green iron ore in the world, paving the way for production of green iron and a new green steel industry.”

Rio and POSCO look to combine iron ore processing and steel-making technologies

Rio Tinto and POSCO, the largest steel producer in South Korea and one of the world’s leading steel producers, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to jointly explore, develop and demonstrate technologies to transition to a low-carbon emission steel value chain.

The partnership will explore a range of technologies for decarbonisation across the entire steel value chain from iron ore mining to steelmaking, including integrating Rio Tinto’s iron ore processing technology and POSCO’s steel-making technology.

The MoU with POSCO underlines Rio Tinto’s commitment to working in partnerships with customers on steel decarbonisation pathways and to invest in technologies that could deliver reductions in steelmaking carbon intensity of at least 30% from 2030 or with potential to deliver carbon-neutral steelmaking pathways by 2050, the company said. Both Rio Tinto and POSCO share the ambition to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, it added.

Rio Tinto Chief Commercial Officer, Alf Barrios, said: “This partnership with POSCO, a valued and long-standing customer, demonstrates our combined commitment to working together to identify ways to reduce emissions across the steel-making process. The agreement also complements Rio Tinto‘s partnerships with other customers as the industry focusses on developing technologies that support the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

POSCO’s Head of Steel Business Unit, Hag-Dong Kim, said: “Tackling climate change is a critical item in achieving sustainable development for a better future. On the journey to achieving carbon neutrality with Rio Tinto, we can play an important role of finding a way to build a low-carbon steel industry”