Heat treatment CO2 emissions cut by 50 percent by using electricity

Replacing fossil fuels with electricity for heating and heat treatment would improve the steel industry’s environmental footprint. According to the Swedish Steel Producers’ Association, converting to electric power for these types of processes could cut their CO2 emissions in half.

The Swedish steel industry might be a small player on the global steel market, but its ambition when it comes to sustainability is world-leading. Through the Swedish Steel Producers’ Association (Jernkontoret), the Swedish steel industry has developed a vision for 2050 and a climate roadmap on how to get there.

The starting point for this climate roadmap was the Swedish climate target of net zero emissions by 2045

“The starting point for this climate roadmap was the Swedish climate target of net zero emissions by 2045,” says Helén Axelsson, energy and environment director at Jernkontoret. “We’ve gone through the emissions from the Swedish steel industry and looked at how we can contribute to reaching this target.”

Cutting CO2 emissions in half

The steel industry is one of Sweden’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Each year it emits about 6 million tons of CO2, or roughly 11 percent of the country’s total emissions. About 85 percent of this stems from the use of coal to reduce iron ore to iron, while about 12 percent comes from using fossil fuels for heating and heat treatment.

“The possibility of using electricity instead of fossil fuels for heating and heat treatment is very interesting,” Axelsson says. “According to our estimates, electricity could replace about 80 percent of the fuel used for heat treatment and about 20 percent of the fuel used for heating. That would reduce the annual CO2 emissions by 300,000 tons, cutting them nearly in half to 400,000 tons per year.”

Helen Axelsson, energy and environment director at Jernkontoret

Other solutions are to replace coal with hydrogen in the reduction of iron ore to iron, and to replace fossil fuel with biomass-based fuels in processes where electricity is not an option.

“I think electricity is a really important factor to reach our targets in the future,” Axelsson says. “There is the possibility to use electricity directly or to use it to produce other fuels.”

More efficient heating

Dilip Chandrasekaran, head of research at Kanthal, sees the move from gas to electric for heating and heat treatment purposes as a general trend within the global steel industry.

“The steel industry is a very large CO2 emitter and wants to reduce its footprint,” he says. “When you burn something that contains carbon you get carbon dioxide that you either need to take care of or release into the atmosphere. With electric heating, you don’t have any exhaust. If the electric power itself is produced in a clean and renewable way, it is a very clean way of heating something.”

However, according to Chandrasekaran, the main advantage of electric power is that you get more efficient heating.

“There is a financial gain as well,” he says. “With electricity, you need less power to get the same heat output. Most of what you put in, power-wise, will get onto the process. With gas, for example, you have extreme amounts of waste heat.”

Dilip Chandrasekaran, head of Research at Kanthal

Improves work environment

Electric heating also benefits the work environment. It’s both cleaner and quieter than gas heating, and it allows you to regulate and optimize the temperature more precisely, down to a few degrees. Moreover, it’s easier to operate as it requires less monitoring and maintenance.

“With electric heating you can basically operate your processes from a control room,” he says.

A common misconception is that electric heating can’t handle high enough temperatures.

“That’s wrong,” Chandrasekaran says. “Our range of solutions handles up to 2,000 degrees Celsius, which covers most processes you need.”

Need for secure electric supply

There really is just one concern regarding a conversion into electric power: the industry must feel sure that there is a stable and reliable source of electricity. This is a matter that the Swedish Steel Producers’ Association recognizes.

“This is an issue where policy makers have to sit down and decide how to plan a secure electricity supply for Sweden, at a competitive cost for the industry,” Axelsson says.

Chandrasekaran agrees that the lack of reliable electricity supply along with uncompetitive electricity prices are valid reasons for sticking to gas heating.

“I still believe electric heating gives an opportunity to solve a lot of problems that we have today,” he says. “Most of the technology is already out there, and we just need to adjust the electrical solutions to our customers’ needs. Going forward, we want to offer more tailor-made solutions within electric heating and high-temperature materials, but perhaps we must also look into other technologies to have a complete offering in the future.”

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