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Steel Can’t Go Carbon Neutral By 2030

The No. 5 blast furnace at Corus’ Port Talbot Works, South Wales. The furnace was rebuilt in eight months in 2002 at a cost of £75m. It produces around 1.5 million tonnes of liquid iron a year and is designed to operate continuously for a minimum of 15 years. Credit:NewsCast +44 (0) 20 7608 1000

We’ve a pathway here for steel to go carbon neutral by 2030. A least, a claim that steel can do so. The point being that it’s one of those things that simply isn’t possible, not on a global basis. So, who is making the claim and why is he making it?

How steel can go carbon neutral by 2030

Ah, that explains that then.

So, the reason steel can’t go carbon neutral is because we’re looking for the specific chemical reaction which releases emissions. We’ve got to use coal, or at least some form of carbon, because that’s what we’re trying to get into the iron to make it into steel. That, in a very pencilly sketch, is what steel is, iron plus carbon.

Now, in an advanced economy we can go largely carbon neutral. Because there are these two parts, one is that chemistry, the other is that we need energy to drive the system. And if we recycle scrap then we don’t need to do the chemistry, we just need the energy. Sure, good luck on producing the electricity requirements of a steel mill from solar panels but at least in theory it’s possible to use non-emitting generation sources to drive the recycling process.

And if you’re currently on Civilisation 2.0 which you’re tearing down to make Civilisation 3.0 you do tend to have, lying around, about as much old steel as you’re going to need new. More even – we used to be profligate in our use of the metal.

So, if you move to recycling steel rather than making it anew from iron ore then you can reduce emissions. You can’t eliminate them though. The various trace or tramp elements – which, when you don’t want them there, like say copper, are known as poisons – do tend to build up in your re-recycled material. Therefore there are uses, nuclear being only one of them, where you always start out with virgin material.

True, those virgin needs have declined over time, when it was possible to make auto steel out of recycled was a big step forward. But they do still exist and as far as we know always will.

This means we can’t have no blast furnaces at all. Globally that is. We need to have some input of virgin material into the global steel system, even as we recycle everything as well.

So, why’s Gupta making this argument? Ah, well, there’s the interesting thing. He’s a steel baron. He is trying to gain a subsidy to take over then convert some steel works or other. Subsidy off the UK government. This works being the last of the blast furnaces in Britain (I think, if not the then one of the). The argument in favour of subsidy, such as it is, being that Britain needs to be able to have the ability to produce virgin steel. Even as we do all that recycling. Can’t be dependent upon foreigners now.

OK, silly argument but that’s the one being made.

But Gupta’s problem is a certain needlethreading. Because his plan is to close down the blast furnace and replace it with electric arc furnaces. They can recycle steel, they’re lovely technology and they can, as above theoretically at least, be run on renewable electricity. Super. and that’s what he wants the subsidy for, to make the switchover. Effectively, the taxpayer buys him those electric arc furnaces.

And thus all this lovely stuff about carbon neutral steel.

Except, obviously, the basic problem with the claim. The argument in favour of subsidy is that Britain needs to have at least the one blast furnace. But the claim for the subsidy is to close down the blast furnace.


Oh, and we’ve no shortage whatsoever of electric arc furnaces to recycle steel. So, why would we line up to buy a new set for Gupta? Unless, obviously, people buy the guff about carbon neutral steel. Thus the argument being made.

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Leo Savantt
Leo Savantt
1 year ago

In reality, meaning in the world in which we live, it is impossible to be carbon neutral if any animal life, human or otherwise, is to exist. Of course to state that is to see the bigger picture. Narrowing down to steel production, even if it were economically viable to energise blast furnaces with renewable electrical energy, that would not be carbon neutral. The manufacture of devices that can extract, mostly minute, amounts of energy from solar, tidal, hydroelectric and wind utilise carbon, not to mention the real negatives impacts they all have on natural habitats and the wider environment.… Read more »

The Mole
The Mole
1 year ago

As steel needs carbon as an input then I’m surprised they aren’t using the argument that virgin steel sequesters carbon and it is therefore good for the environment.

Of course you’d need perfect conversion/capture and I’m guessing with a coal powered blast furnace in reality most of the coal ends up as CO2+energy. Though perhaps once we have perfected commercial CO2 capturing of the exhaust then you might be able to reach net zero emissions if people really think it is that essential.

Arthur the Cat
Arthur the Cat
1 year ago

Tim, although you need some carbon in steel to make it steel, the great majority of carbon in the steel making process is used to reduce the iron ore, i.e. strip the oxygen out of the iron oxide to leave iron. This task can be done by hydrogen instead(*) with mainly water as the resultant emitted gas, and steel makers are intending to switch to hydrogen if/when carbon taxes arrive. However, the big problem at the moment is that the cheapest way to make hydrogen is by converting methane (natural gas) and oxygen to carbon dioxide and hydrogen, so you’ve… Read more »

1 year ago
Reply to  Arthur the Cat

Because I grew up in Sheffield and we covered this at school, whenever this sort of stuff comes up I find myself automatically thinking “but this is schoolboy stuff…”.

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