Stainless Steel?

The industry searches for new technology to radically reduce greenhouse gases

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Pierre Heckler/Le Republicain Lorrain/Photopqr/Newscom

ArcelorMittal plans to test a greener manufacturing process at its plant in Florange

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Although 30% of all steel production comes from recycled scrap that avoids the carbon-intensive blast furnace, China, because of its economic newness, has little or no steel to recycle. Greenpeace notes that steelmakers in China, India, Brazil, Russia and South Africa use 1½ to 2½ times the energy to produce a ton of steel as do their counterparts in Europe and North America.

The solution, then, is to change the whole chemical process of steelmaking. "The holy grail is to get away from the use of carbon-based material in the production of iron," Goldsmith says. But holy grails are hard to find. Steel companies in Europe, the U.S., Japan and South Korea are collaborating to replace methods involving carbon fuels with others, including technologies that use hydrogen and electrolysis. Although those methods would take carbon out of the steelmaking process, they are decades away from being ready.

So ArcelorMittal—by far the world's biggest steelmaker—is focusing on another approach, the one destined for Florange. There, it would capture waste gases CO2 and carbon monoxide and then reinject the carbon monoxide, along with pure oxygen, into the blast furnace. The technique, called top-gas recycling, would increase the furnace's efficiency and eat significantly into CO2 emissions, according to Michel Wurth, a member of ArcelorMittal's group management board. It would also require a steelmaker to store the captured CO2 in the ground--a costly, cutting-edge and controversial technique--in order to get the full carbon-reduction potential.

In 2008, ULCOS proved that at least the capture part of the concept works, at a small prototype in Lulea, Sweden, where it did not store the CO2 but let it loose into the atmosphere. It now hopes to build a larger prototype at an ArcelorMittal plant in Eisenhüttenstadt, Germany, in 2012 and to retrofit an even bigger, commercial-scale blast furnace in Florange with the technology by 2015. Once the company validates operations in Florange, it could use the facility for commercial production. Wurth cautions that testing could take as long as five years, until 2020.

This underscores the point that the top-gas project is a big initiative fraught with challenges. Raising the $665 million to cover costs at both Eisenhüttenstadt and Florange is one of them. ULCOS plans to apply for a European Commission carbon-capture grant by the end of March, which would provide about half the amount. The rest would come from ULCOS member companies and national governments.

Another challenge: the storage part of the equation could face public opposition. Both Greenpeace and FOE oppose carbon capture and storage, a technology that has been proposed for many industries, including oil, gas and power. Critics say it is an unproven, expensive technology and that stored carbon could eventually leak into the atmosphere. "It is not a solution for climate change," says Joao Talocchi, a Greenpeace climate-and-energy campaigner in Amsterdam. "The money should be invested in really renewable energy sources," says Paul de Clerck, coordinator of FOE's Campaign for International and Economic Justice, in Brussels.

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