Environment & Engineering

Accelerating research into low-emissions steelmaking

Published Feb 16, 2022

Researchers at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Robinson Research Institute have developed a novel technology which uses hydrogen instead of coal to produce iron and steel, a breakthrough step in New Zealand’s transition to a climate-resilient and low greenhouse gas emissions future.

Teaming up with Wellington UniVentures and New Zealand Steel in a new collaboration, the organisations are now aiming to accelerate the development of a pilot-scale reactor for this process located at New Zealand Steel’s Glenbrook site. This collaboration will explore how innovation in low or zero-emission technologies could be adopted to update a process which has largely remained the same since the Iron Age.

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, iron is produced from titanomagnetite ironsand, which is an indigenous form of iron ore containing low levels of titanium oxide. The technology that enables this unique ironmaking process was developed in New Zealand specifically for its own indigenous ironsands. Developing this low-emissions hydrogen technology with ironsands is the next, exciting step for local steelmaking in New Zealand.

Producing iron currently relies on a chemical reaction between coal and iron ore, which results in the emission of CO₂. But Dr Chris Bumby and his team at Robinson Research Institute have demonstrated how hydrogen can revolutionise this process.

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.”

Research and innovation have a critical role to play in accelerating the steel industry’s transition to a low carbon future. The project is also contributing to the decarbonisation pathway set out by New Zealand Steel’s parent company, BlueScope, that has set a 12% steelmaking intensity reduction target by 2030 and set a net zero goal by 2050 across its operations.

New Zealand Steel Chief Executive Robin Davies says he welcomes the opportunity to support a home-grown solution for New Zealand, and the world, to decarbonise. “New Zealand’s decarbonisation pathway relies heavily on innovation, development, and transition in the construction, infrastructure, manufacturing, and agricultural sectors. That transition will require steel, and an abundant supply of competitively-priced renewable electricity. New Zealand Steel is committed to doing our part in reducing New Zealand’s emissions. This collaboration with Wellington UniVentures is just one part of our climate action strategy to help reach our net zero goal, and we look forward to seeing the results,” Mr Davies says.

Helping to transition this idea into a future service, Wellington UniVentures has supported the team to successfully navigate the early stages of IP protection. 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 New Zealand 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.”