Steel Sector Aids Sustainability Efforts

Volvo Group partners with SSAB on ‘green steel’ for off-highway machines and with Ovako for access to fossil-free hydrogen.

SSAB Oxelösund in Sweden rolled the first steel produced using HYBRIT sponge iron, which is reduced by 100% fossil-free hydrogen instead of coal and coke. (SSAB)

Alternative propulsion technologies such as batteries and hydrogen fuel cells garner much of the attention for how the commercial-vehicle and off-highway sectors can reduce their climate impact. Volvo Group is no exception, expending significant development resources on such solutions. But the company prides itself on identifying new ways to achieve “net zero” – thus, its collaboration with steel makers SSAB and Ovako targeting cleaner vehicle and hydrogen production.

Volvo recently revealed the first vehicle made of fossil-free steel from SSAB, a load carrier for use in mining and quarrying. More vehicles will follow in 2022. (Volvo Group)

Volvo’s “green steel” collaboration with SSAB is centered on creating fossil-free vehicles. In 2020, 1.87 million tonnes of crude steel were produced worldwide, 16% of which was destined for the transport sector, according to the World Steel Association. Around 70% of a truck’s weight comes from steel and cast iron, Volvo said, and the figure for its construction machines is even higher.

In October, Volvo revealed the world’s-first vehicle made of fossil-free steel from SSAB – a load carrier for use in mining and quarrying. More vehicles will follow in 2022, said Volvo Group president and CEO Martin Lundstedt, in what will become a series of concept vehicles and components using the sustainable steel. The components will be across Volvo’s product ranges, with a step-by-step approach, he said.

SSAB aims to start supplying fossil-free steel at a commercial scale in 2026, including from its Americas operations. (SSAB)
The quality and properties of SSAB’s fossil-free steel are the same as its traditional steel. (SSAB)

Lundstedt reinforced Volvo Group’s commitment to be climate-neutral and achieve net-zero value chain greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2040. Along with the electrification of its vehicles and machines, Volvo is determined to reduce the carbon footprint of its entire supply chain, he said.

“The initiative with SSAB sets the benchmark for a fossil-free future,” Lundstedt said during the concept vehicle’s reveal. “Just as the nations of the world come together at COP26 [the United Nations Climate Change conference, held in Glasgow, Scotland] to address climate change, so too must organizations and industries work in collaboration to develop innovative new solutions for a GHG emission-free future. Volvo Group is committed to develop attractive, safe and efficient new vehicles and machines that pave the way for a more sustainable transport and infrastructure system adopted for the future.”

The dumper/hauler concept was produced at Volvo CE’s facility in Braås, Sweden. The first units will be test vehicles. Smaller-scale series production and first customer deliveries are planned by early 2022, with mass production set to follow.

“Our collaboration with Volvo Group shows that green transition is possible and brings results,” said Martin Lindqvist, president and CEO at SSAB. “Together, we will continue reducing climate impact all the way to the end customer while ensuring that our customers get high-quality steel. We look forward to continuing to work with Volvo Group in research and development to produce more fossil-free steel products.”

HYBRIT process

SSAB aims to start supplying fossil-free steel at a commercial scale in 2026, including from its Americas operations. SSAB Americas’ modern steel mills are located in Mobile, Alabama, and Montpelier, Iowa.

Volvo’s collaboration with steel maker Ovako to make use of surplus “green” hydrogen also calls for the installation of a hydrogen filling station for fuel-cell trucks. (Volvo Group)
Ready access to green hydrogen will benefit cellcentric and its scalable fuel-cell system designed for an approximate output of 150 kW and voltage in the range of 800 VDC. (cellcentric)

Five years ago, Europe’s largest iron ore producer LKAB, energy company Vattenfall and SSAB collaborated to create HYBRIT (Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology). The result of the HYBRIT process is hydrogen-reduced sponge iron that is then melted in an electric arc furnace. The sponge iron is produced at a pilot plant in Luleå, Sweden.

In July, SSAB Oxelösund in Sweden rolled the first steel produced using HYBRIT sponge iron, which is reduced by 100% fossil-free hydrogen instead of coal and coke. Water is the byproduct rather than CO2 emissions. Carbon will still be an alloying element in the steel, SSAB noted.

“We’ll be converting to electric arc furnace in Oxelösund as early as 2025,” said Johnny Sjöström, head of SSAB Special Steels Division. “This is the first production site within SSAB to make the transition, and it means that we’ll already be cutting large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions then.”

SSAB admits that fossil-free steel is a premium product with a higher price tag than regular fossil-based steel products. The main cost drivers are the investments in production and infrastructure – to switch from coal to fossil-free electricity and hydrogen, from natural gas to biogas, and from iron ore pellets to HYBRIT sponge iron.

The quality and properties of SSAB’s fossil-free steel are the same as its traditional steel, Lindqvist said. The properties are still created in the steelmaking, rolling and heat-treatment processes; the only difference is that the energy used will be exclusively fossil-free electricity and other fossil-free fuels. SSAB plans to eventually have the full range of its steel grades available in fossil-free steel. The order of product roll-out, however, will be determined by customer requests.

Demand for the green steel appears to be growing. Just a few weeks after the Volvo product reveal, automotive safety-systems supplier Autoliv announced a collaboration with SSAB to research and develop fossil-free steel components for safety products such as airbags and seatbelts.

“We are committed to becoming carbon neutral in our own operations by 2030 and furthermore aim for net-zero emissions across our supply chain by 2040,” said Mikael Bratt, president and CEO of Autoliv. “This means reducing our carbon emissions through use of renewable electricity in our own and supplier operations, improving energy and materials efficiency and adopting low-carbon logistics and low-carbon materials. Gradually switching to fossil-free steel in our products is an important step towards achieving our climate targets.”

Surplus ‘green’ hydrogen

Volvo Group also has a collaboration with steel maker Ovako to make use of the surplus “green” hydrogen produced as part of Ovako’s manufacturing operations to power its fuel-cell vehicles particularly for long-haul and heavy-duty applications, as well as for hydrogen-fueled combustion engines. This arrangement will ensure that no surplus hydrogen goes to waste and that the cost efficiency of recycling this byproduct and converting it to energy will be passed on to customers, Volvo said.

As part of this collaboration, a hydrogen filling station will be built alongside Ovako’s plant in Hofors, Sweden, allowing Volvo to start fueling its hydrogen-powered test fleet “in a couple of years from now.” The initiative is supported by the Swedish Energy Agency.

With the new hydrogen plant in Hofors, Ovako claims it will be the first in the world to heat steel with hydrogen prior to rolling, marking a major step towards climate-neutral steel production. The technical solution also will enable large-scale and cost-effective production of hydrogen for other applications, the steel maker said. Installations at multiple locations could enable a network with locally produced green hydrogen available for the transport sector.

“The transport sector is undergoing a paradigm shift, and green hydrogen will be one of the most important energy vectors in the transport industry for long-haul and heavy freight,” said Lars Stenqvist, Chief Technology Officer at Volvo Group. “Decentralized hydrogen production in the steel industry fits very well with the transport industry’s need for fossil-free fuel. This technological solution is scalable because it can be used by the steel industry in large parts of the world. Working in partnership with other industries to be involved in the entire value chain around our transport solutions is essential.”

Access to green hydrogen has become more critical for Volvo Group and Daimler Truck since the launch of their joint venture cellcentric, which is developing fuel-cell systems for use in heavy-duty commercial vehicles and other applications. The OEMs plan to start with customer tests of their fuel-cell trucks in about three years and to be in series production during the second half of this decade.

Volvo and other truck manufacturers are calling for the installation of around 300 high-performance hydrogen refueling stations suitable for heavy-duty vehicles by 2025. The collaboration with Ovako is an important step toward that goal, Volvo said.