Clean Green Steel: UK Researchers Seek Cleaner Industry

- February 11th, 2019

The research program is touted as a way to double the value of the industry, increase jobs and increase productivity.

The UK steel industry is being prodded towards a carbon-neutral future, with universities and industry bodies banding together for a seven-year research program to look into making the industry cleaner.

The program, which is going to be led by Swansea University in Wales, was announced on Monday (February 11) and was touted as a way to double the value of steelmaking for the UK, increase jobs (to 35,000) and increase productivity (by 15 percent) across the industry — which has struggled in recent years against international competition.

In the release, Swansea said that the program was the first time that UK steel producers and representatives from the manufacturing sector have joined together for a coordinated approach.

The seven-year program, which is called SUSTAIN, is aimed at two areas; zero waste with the goal of making the iron and steelmaking industry in the UK carbon-neutral by 2040, and innovation, with the goal of collecting data on the industry and using it to work on new metallurgical processes.

“Steel is at the heart of UK manufacturing sectors such as the car industry, construction, packaging and defence,” said the release.

“It is an indispensable component of the UK’s future national infrastructure such as transport, communications and energy, and for high-tech 21st century industries, from energy-positive buildings to wind turbines and electric vehicles.”

In 2016, the steelmaking industry accounted for 0.1 percent of the UK economy with a physical output of 8 million tonnes of steel and an economic contribution of 1.6 billion pounds sterling. For comparison, in the same year China produced 808 million tonnes of steel.

Despite its small footprint on a global scale, the UK is the European Union’s fifth-largest steel producer, accounting for almost 5 percent of the EU’s steel output.

Steel is produced through importing iron ore from other countries like Australia and Brazil.

In a note, Senior Research Analyst at Wood Mackenzie Alex Griffith pointed to an uneven global response to tackling the carbon footprint of steelmaking.

“Responses differ and a coordinated clean-up seems unlikely,” he said.

“In China, air, soil and water pollution dominate the agenda. Production cuts, sintering restrictions and dust capturing equipment installation have resulted in some success in clearing up the Beijing skies.”

“In the EU, CO2 is at the forefront of concerns. The price of emissions permits is rising as the number of permits falls — meaning CO2 is eroding margins. Technologies to reduce CO2 emissions exist in principle but scalability means a transition to these technologies is not imminent. Even if scale could be achieved, adjusting would be costly and steelmakers fear competition from regions with laxer CO2 emission standards. Steelmakers across the EU have looked to public money for help.”

The SUSTAIN program, which is billed as a 35-million pound program, is backed by a 10-million pound contribution from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the UK — a government body that provides grants to research programs.

That funding, said Griffith, “is inline with public funding for other green-steel projects in the EU, but the target — carbon neutral vs fossil-free — is arguably less ambitious.”

Swansea University, located in southern Wales, is also conveniently located near Tata Steel’s Port Talbot Steelworks — which was responsible for almost 15 percent of Wales’ carbon emissions in 2016. Southern Wales has been a hub for manufacturing in the UK since the industrial revolution.

Dr Cameron Pleydell-Pearce, SUSTAIN’s deputy director and a steel expert at Swansea University, said: “We are already on the road to clean, green and smart steelmaking, but [SUSTAIN] is another giant step forward.”

“Research and innovation are the bedrock of a modern steel industry. This network represents almost the whole UK steel sector, with researchers and companies working together on an unprecedented scale.”

Port Talbot from Swansea University. Image courtesy of Swansea University.

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Securities Disclosure: I, Scott Tibballs, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

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