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Magazine12 Min

On a mission: #turningmetalsgreen

2023: Shaping the future of metals

In the final part of our series, we look towards the future. One thing is certain: the future must be green, because we can only limit climate change if we produce metals in a sustainable way.

On March 1, 2023, SMS group and thyssenKrupp Steel Europe (TKSE) sign a contract to start the decarbonization of one of Europe’s largest steel sites, which accounts for 2.5% of Germany’s total CO2 emissions. On the site in Duisburg, we are building a direct reduction plant combined with an electric smelter, which enables a seamless integration into the existing infrastructure. This new ironmaking facility will allow ThyssenKrupp Steel to replace one of their blast furnaces, which are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Only five months earlier, we kicked-off a project with the steel start-up H2 Green Steel. SMS group is supplying the technology for the first green steel plant in the world, which reduces CO2 emissions by as much as 95% compared to conventional steel plants. The energy supply of H2 Green Steel is completely based on hydrogen and green electricity from renewable sources.

Contract signing with TKSE on March 1.
Visualization of TKSE direct reduction plant and OBF
Based on green electricity, green hydrogen and latest technology, H2 Green Steel will reduce CO2 emissions by up to 95 percent compared to traditional steelmaking.

Pathways towards green steel

ThyssenKrupp Steel and H2 Green Steel are lighthouse projects paving the road towards a green steel future and we are proud to be the "frontrunner" in the decarbonization of the steel industry with these projects. However, we also know that a broad, worldwide implementation of CO2 emission reducing plants and technologies will be needed moving forward, as the steel industry alone accounts for around 8% of today’s global CO2 emissions. The question is which technologies can we already leverage and how can we deliver this massive transformation in an economically feasible, globally-scalable way?

A common feature of both the TKSE and H2 Green Steel projects is that they rely on direct reduction. Several hurdles impede the exclusive adoption of this technology as the ultimate solution. The most important factor is that shaft-based direct reduction requires the use of high-quality iron ore pellets. Today, less than 40 million tons of this material is shipped to the global market. Second, the economic feasibility of widespread green hydrogen adoption remains challenging, given the scale required to meet global steel demand. Third, electricity consumption emerges as a significant factor, given the imperative to more than double renewable energy generation by 2050 to attain net-zero targets. A staggering two-thirds of the existing worldwide renewable generation capacity (approximately 2,000 GW) would need to be reserved for the steel industry. Last, but not least, the speed of this transition is also important as current limitations on plant builder capacities and funding opportunities present significant challenges. In spite of  these complexities, forecasts still expect direct reduction capacity to grow from today's 117 million tons to almost 500 million by 2050, representing approximately 25% of total steel production projections.

The electric steel route is the fastest way to produce near-zero emissions steel, requiring only the use of green electricity. However, the availability of scrap sets a limit to the expansion of this process route. By 2050, the World Steel Association expects a total of 1.4 billion tons of scrap to be available each year. However, around one-third of this scrap will be used in primary steelmaking, leaving a total projection of between 850 and 900 million tons via direct scrap recycling. That would represent an increase from today's 23% to more than 35% of total steel production.

The current forecasts also show that the blast furnace route will continue to play a major role for the next three decades. In 2050, almost 40% (approximately 850 million tons) of the world’s crude steel is projected to be produced using the conventional route. That is why the conversion of blast furnaces into low CO2-emission operation is one of the key challenges to decarbonizing the steel industry.

Our answer to this is the Paul Wurth EASyMelt. This electrically assisted syngas smelter can be integrated into existing integrated steel plants, demonstrating a significant pathway for the decarbonization of existing blast furnaces worldwide. The EASyMelt represents a resource-flexible, crisis-resistant, and cost efficient alternative to direct reduction technologies and offers much lower investment and operational costs compared to direct reduction plants.

In June 2023, we signed an agreement with Tata Steel to advance and demonstrate this groundbreaking technology on an industrial level. By implementing EASyMelt, Tata Steel aims to cut CO2 emissions by over 50% compared to baseline operations, showcasing the customer’s drive towards sustainable steel production.

Technologies for near-zero emission steel production depend on the availability of green energy sources and raw materials.
Direct reduction plant.
Electric arc furnace
The EASyMelt principle
CO2 emissions in different iron and steel production routes.

Circular economy of metals: our contribution

One of our particular strengths lies in the fact that over the course of our history we have not only built up a great deal of expertise in the field of iron and steel metallurgy, but also in aluminum, copper and across other non-ferrous metals. Here, our technological focus lies in the recycling of these metals as a building block of a circular economy. This term describes the transition from a linear model of "produce-consume-dispose" to a circular system. Metals are particularly suited for a circular economy because they are extremely durable, are easy to repair and can be recycled practically indefinitely.

Recycling copper and non-ferrous metals, however, is an increasingly complex task, as in modern applications, such as in mobile phones, these metals form a functional unit within a component together with other materials such as plastics. Dissolving these compounds, separating the metals and recovering them in the highest degree of purity requires our special metallurgical expertise.

A project to proof this ability is the multi-metal recycling plant we are currently building with Aurubis in the United States. The plant will recycle electronic waste from discarded circuit boards or cables, and recover raw materials like copper, nickel, tin, precious metals, and platinum group metals. These metals are crucial raw materials in the energy transition, sustainable mobility, and digitalization. Another example is the battery recycling plant we are supplying with our joint venture Primobius to Mercedes-Benz. Here, in a hydrometallurgical process, disposed lithium-ion batteries are recycled to reuse the metals for the production of new cells.

Aurubis site in September 2023
(Copyright: Aurubis AG)
Groundbreaking for the Mercedes Benz battery recycling plant took place in March 2023.

Our mission: #turningmetalsgreen

The fight against climate change is a task for all humankind. As a supplier of plants and technology to produce and recycle all major metals, we play a key role in the transformation towards a green metals industry. In this mission, we can rely also on the foundations we have built up during our history: we have strong roots that give us the strength and expertise to tackle today’s challenges. We have the global setup to supply our plants and services to all countries worldwide and to adapt our solutions to local needs. We have the expertise to bring ideas to reality by installing our technology within the course of projects. We have the innovative power to develop the green technologies of the future. Finally, we offer the services that help our customers to increase their performance, giving them the means to invest in sustainable solutions. Let’s shape the future of metals for the next 150 years!

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