Heavy industry has long seemed irredeemably carbon-intensive. Reducing iron ore to make steel, heating limestone to produce cement and using steam to crack hydrocarbons into their component molecules all require a lot of energy. On top of that, the chemical processes involved give off lots of additional carbon dioxide. Cutting all those emissions, experts believed, was either technically unfeasible or prohibitively expensive.
Both the economics and the technology are at last looking more favorable. Europe is introducing tougher emissions targets, carbon prices are rising and consumers are showing a greater willingness to pay more for greener products. Several European countries have crafted strategies for hydrogen, the most promising replacement for fossil fuels in many industrial processes. Germany is launching the Hydrogen Intermediary Network Company, a global trading hub for hydrogen and hydrogen-derived products. Most important, low-carbon technologies are finally coming of age. The need for many companies to replenish their ageing assets offers a “fast-forward mechanism”, says Per-Anders Enkvist of Material Economics…Decarbonising industry has turned from mission impossible to “mission possible”, says Adair Turner of the Energy Transitions Commission, a think-tank.
In July 2022 the board of Salzgitter, a German steel company, gave the nod to a €723m project called SALCOS that will swap its conventional blast furnaces for direct-reduction plants by 2033 (it will use some natural gas until it can secure enough hydrogen). Other big European steel producers, including ArcelorMittal and Thyssenkrupp, have similar plans.
HeidelbergCement, the world’s fourth-largest manufacturer of the cement has launched half a dozen low-carbon projects in Europe. They include a carbon capture storage (CCS) facility in the Norwegian city of Brevik and the world’s first carbon-neutral cement plant on the Swedish island of Gotland…The chemicals industry faces the biggest challenge. Although powering steam crackers with electricity instead of natural gas is straightforward in principle, it is no cakewalk in practice, given the limited supply of low-carbon electricity. Moreover, the chemicals business breathes hydrocarbons, from which many of its 30,000 or so products are derived. Even so, it is not giving up. BASF, a chemicals colossus, is working with two rivals, SABIC and Linde, to develop an electrically heated steam cracker for its town-sized factory in Ludwigshafen. It wants to make its site in Antwerp net-zero by 2030.
A few dozen pilot projects—even large ones—do not amount to a green transition. The hard part is scaling them up. However, the first movers will be able to set the standards and grabbing a slice of potentially lucrative businesses such as software to control hydrogen- and steelmaking equipment.
Excerpts from Green-dustrialization, Economist, Sept. 24, 2022