Environment & Engineering

Accelerating research into low-emissions steelmaking

Published Feb 16, 2022

Researchers at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University’s Robinson Research Institute collaborate with Wellington UniVentures and New Zealand Steel to decarbonise steel.

Steel is used in everything from roads and railways to earthquake resilient buildings and electric vehicles and will play an important role in New Zealand’s transition to net zero carbon economy. In New Zealand, steel and iron production is the single largest industrial source of CO₂ emissions, representing 55% of industrial emissions and around 5% of total gross emissions. The problem is that producing iron currently relies on a chemical reaction between coal and iron ore, which results in the emission of large quantities of CO₂. The fundamental chemistry of this process has largely stayed the same since the Iron Age.

Dr Chris Bumby and his team at the Robinson Research Institute have developed a novel technology which uses hydrogen instead of coal to produce iron and steel, potentially eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from New Zealand’s steel industry. Teaming up with Wellington Univentures and New Zealand Steel in a new collaboration, they are now aiming to accelerate the development of a pilot-scale plant for this process.

In New Zealand, iron is produced from titanomagnetite ironsand, which is an unusual form of iron ore containing low levels of titanium oxide. Dr Chris Bumby and his team at Robinson Research Institute have demonstrated how hydrogen can revolutionise this process. Replacing hydrogen for coal, the hydrogen reacts with New Zealand ironsand in a custom built fluidised-bed reactor at temperatures up to 1000⁰C, to produce very high-purity iron.

Kickstarting the project in 2019, Dr Bumby received $6.5 million from the MBIE Endeavour Fund to develop this new chemical process. With a unified goal to produce safe and sustainable steel, New Zealand Steel is providing $750,000 over three years to accelerate the engineering development of this research.

Dr Chris Bumby who is leading the project says: “We’re in the throes of a climate crisis and eliminating coal from the steelmaking process will significantly contribute to lowering global CO₂ emissions. New Zealand’s abundant renewable electricity supply can be used to produce ‘Green hydrogen’ and electrically heat the reactor, resulting in a process that does not emit carbon dioxide at all.”

New Zealand Steel supplies all major markets including construction, manufacturing and agriculture. Supporting this project highlights the organisation’s dedication to improve environmental performance across the industry.

To date, Wellington UniVentures has supported the development of the research, by validating the technology, protecting the IP and identifying and approaching industry partners. Connecting with NZ Steel and having the funding at such an early stage is fundamental to ensuring the research can be scaled up.

Anne Barnett, Wellington UniVentures’ CEO says: “Hydrogen steelmaking will be vital to securing a zero-carbon future, and it also presents a huge economic opportunity for New Zealand. We are excited to be partnering with NZ Steel in this first step towards pilot-scale demonstration of our process. Full-scale industrial commercialisation will of course require much more investment, and we look forward to engaging with a range of other partners and investors in the coming years.”