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Taming emissions will take tech breakthroughs and level-playing-field politics


North American ferrous and nonferrous metal producers—individually and on a collaborative basis—have made concerted efforts to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and are looking to continue doing so. The answer to whether these efforts are paying off might well be rooted in how you define paying off.

In terms of actual emissions, the steps taken so far do seem to be effective. A spokeswoman for ArcelorMittal SA, for example, points to two reports one from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showing that domestic steel industry emissions declined 67 percent between 1995 and 2006, the other from the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) boasting that the industry has sliced energy intensity (energy per ton shipped) by 33 percent since 1990. Lower energy intensity translates into lower GHG emissions.

ArcelorMittal recently set its own carbon reduction target, aiming to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (the major GHG produced in steelmaking) by 8 percent worldwide by 2020 from a 2007 baseline, the spokeswoman said.

Like their neighbors to the south, Canadian steelmakers also have made significant strides, curtailing their GHG emissions by about 20 percent since 1990, according to Robert Schutzman, chairman of the environment and energy committee of the Canadian Steel Producers Association and director of environmental affairs and trade for the Canadian operations of Evraz Inc. North America.

In the nonferrous metals arena, the North American aluminum industry also has slashed its GHG emissions dramatically, as evidenced by the achievements of two of its largest producers.

Nigel Steward, Rio Tinto Alcan's vice president of technology and equipment sales and services, said the Montreal-based company has cut its GHG emissions by 54 percent while lifting production 42 percent. Likewise, an Alcoa Inc. spokesman said the Pittsburgh-based company has reduced its GHG emissions by 36 percent while more than doubling output.

Michel Lalonde, Rio Tinto Alcan's director of climate change, said that the International Aluminium Institute (IAI) goal to reduce global perfluorocarbon (PFC) emissions by 80 percent by 2010 has already been met. The IAI is now seeking to trim PFC emissions—one of the major GHGs emitted during the aluminum production process—another 10 percent worldwide by 2020.

Concerns continue to mount, however, that the moves being taken by North American producers—and actions that are likely to be mandated to meet legislative targets proposed in both the United States and Canada—are more ambitious and costly than what is being undertaken in other parts of the world. And the difference could affect North American producers' global competitiveness.

"Gerdau Ameristeel (Corp.) is very concerned about climate change and has invested heavily in the available technology," John Skelley, the company's corporate environmental affairs manager, said. "We understand the need to operate as efficiently as possible and .?.?. support the concept of minimizing GHG emissions as long as there is a level global playing field and our competitiveness is not weakened."

Chris Kristock, vice president of quality and product development at Severstal North America Inc., agreed. "North American manufacturing dominance is being threatened by U.S. and regional restrictions that aren't imposed globally, while there is only one atmosphere globally," he warned. "There is a lot at stake."

Some of the advances made by domestic mills are rooted in a shift in the mix of the industry's overall technology base, with an increase in mini-mills (consuming mainly recycled steel) vs. integrated producers, according to Schutzman. But the emissions reduction also has been achieved by enhancements in furnace technology, including the addition of more computer controls and the use of more efficient burners.

Improvements have been marked off by meticulously tracking and refining steelmaking practices and procedures and identifying areas of waste, Kristock said, noting that Severstal NA, for one, has been pursuing a "zero-basis budget methodology" to make changes resulting in the use of "as little energy as conceivably possible."

Much of the improvement notched by the aluminum industry has been technologybased, according to Rio Tinto Alcan, which cited the introduction of its AP smelting technology as an example. Steward said that the approach allows the production of aluminum with very low GHG emissions, low energy consumption and a low anode effect, which translates into low PFC emissions. To date, 6.5 million tonnes of AP smelter technology has been installed worldwide, with another 900,000 tonnes in the project phase and 100,000 tonnes in discussion, he said.

In general, the progress made is a result of continuous improvement, the Alcoa spokesman said. Without being specific, he said his company has made "significant investments to make our smelters more efficient and to increase our yields" and plans to continue doing so to further reduce emissions.

Given all that has already been achieved, can GHG emissions be further reduced? "Very little improvement is possible without a major step change in technology," Skelley said.

The ArcelorMittal spokeswoman agreed. "Absent breakthrough technologies, this rate of carbon (and other GHG) emissions will soon reach a plateau due to the physical limits of the integrated steelmaking process," she said.

Several breakthroughs, including two carbon-free steelmaking technologies and inert anode smelter technology on the aluminum side, are being researched, although she said that "a commercially viable integrated steel technology to achieve the long-term reductions contemplated by policymakers has yet to be developed or demonstrated."

The closest would probably be those being researched by the AISI/Energy Department Carbon Dioxide Breakthrough Program. But even if successful, those technologies likely won't be available for "mass market" commercialization for another 15 to 20 years, Kristock predicted.

One hurdle to the emergence of breakthrough technologies, especially in Canada, has been government support of research and development (R&D) work, Schutzman said. "The government is looking to cut out the 'R' and keep the 'D'," he said. "The government doesn't want to support losers. But the problem with that is you don't have a winner with every research project."

Even so, the metals industry has learned enough from the research being conducted to make incremental improvements until breakthrough technologies can be implemented, Kristock said. One such opportunity has been the ability to take advantage of latent heat from steelmaking operations, or hot charging.

The AISI's Committee on Manufacturing Technology also is continuing to investigate carbon capture, or sequestration, methods, he added. "There are technologies out there, but the ones we've looked at so far are not suited for a large-scale operation, such as steelmaking."

Both the steel and aluminum industries also are viewing their metals as a partial solution for their customers' GHG emission problems. The use of high-strength steel and light metals such as aluminum in transportation applications could decrease emissions significantly.

Steward noted that when a ton of aluminum is used to replace a heavier material in a car it could slice GHG emissions by 20 tons over the lifetime of the vehicle.

Myra Pinkham

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