4 ways metals manufacturers can advance towards energy transition

Changes fundamental to producing low-emissions metals are on the way — think commercially viable green hydrogen. In the meantime, manufacturers can become future ready in four important ways.

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1. Be open to change

“The manufacture of metals is quite a conservative industry,” says Frederik Esterhuizen, global manager of ABB’s Business Line Metals. “Managers tend towards traditional technologies. Even if they express a desire for new technology, they qualify that by saying it must be proven.” Developing new technology at the pace required by industry is almost impossible without running pilots that enable fast iteration towards achieving manufacturing goals. Steelmakers typically want the best technology, but they don't want to be the first to try it.

Tata Steel is one company bucking the trend. ABB and Tata Steel recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), to co-create innovative models and technologies that will reduce the carbon footprint of steel production. Energy optimization is at the heart of this collaboration, starting with integrated electrification initiatives managed by digital systems such as ABB Ability™ solutions, and progressing to the substitution of hydrogen in upstream processes. “This is the kind of piloting that will lead to widespread meaningful change,” says Esterhuizen who adds, “First movers like Tata will have a market advantage.”

Frederik Esterhuizen, global manager of ABB’s Business Line Metals

2. Embrace digitalization

At ABB, electrification goes hand in hand with automation and digital solutions that optimize energy use. For example, ABB medium-voltage motors installed to power the drive trains of steel rolling mills can be monitored and controlled as part of a plant-wide, digital, energy optimization model. Accurate forecasting of process power needs can then inform automatic scheduling of high energy requirements, to coincide with best value prices of electricity from the grid or other suppliers.

“With the help of digital solutions, there are great opportunities to integrate, visualize and automate processes and thus create flexible facilities,” says Ola Norén, ABB’s Head of Metallurgy Products, Process Industries. “This allows production to be adapted to take advantage of varying energy prices.”

Ola Norén, ABB’s Head of Metallurgy Products, Process Industries.

He adds that the greatest benefits of digitalization can be achieved when all systems in a manufacturing facility communicate with one another, integrating data to achieve overall synergies.

3. Partner and invest

Procurement departments typically raise a cost-driven barrier to buying more efficient, new technologies. “One of their KPIs is to minimize expenses in any current budget. This doesn’t allow for strategic investment and it blocks the mindset to truly partner with suppliers,” says Esterhuizen.

“If you’re always driving towards the cheapest option, it makes it hard for suppliers to provide the features and customization that will multiply the difference made by an entry-level package. ABB seeks to engage in real partnerships that allow us to work with customers, understand their needs and provide advice on investments that deliver incremental benefits.”

For instance, ABB has developed a comprehensive range of electromagnetic stirring (EMS) devices based on its ArcSave® technology, to improve the output and efficiency of EAFs. Every installation benefits from ABB’s technical expertise in training operators and fine-tuning how the EMS works in individual melt shops.

ABB partnered with electric arc furnace manufacturer Tenova to develop Consteerer®, an innovative bespoke technology. When deployed at Italian steelmaker Acciaieria Arvedi’s record-breaking melting unit (furnace tapping size 300mt), Consteerer boosted productivity by 5% and reduced electrical energy consumption by 3.6%.

“Obviously, if you use less fossil-fuel-driven energy, you have fewer emissions and there's a lot of room for improvement in metals production,” says Esterhuizen. “Every manufacturing site is different, but they all have the potential to save a couple of percent, if not double-digit percentages, on energy consumption.”

4. Think circular

Electric arc furnaces have sustainability in their DNA — by melting down scrap metal to produce new steel, they are inherently part of the circular economy. But the drive to lower the carbon footprint of steelmaking which accounts for around 8% of global carbon emissions requires further systemic change. Reducing waste in every aspect of metal production, ensuring the recyclability of manufacturing equipment and moving to reduce fossil fuel use in steel processing are key areas of focus.

ABB takes a lifecycle approach to circularity to factor our waste, from design all the way to take-back schemes and recycling.

By reassessing their supply chains, manufacturers can seek to partner with companies with a mindset to reduce, reuse and recycle materials, and thereby progressively minimize their own carbon footprint.

For example, ABB has committed to using low-carbon copper in its electromagnetic stirrers (EMS) through a partnership with the Swedish mining and smelting company Boliden, and is working with Finnish metals manufacturing specialist Luvata, a provider of low-carbon hollow conductor wire for EMSs; and global low-carbon copper wire supplier Dahrén. Depending on size, an EMS incorporates up to 2,700kg of copper. By utilizing Luvata product ABB saves up to 6,700kg of CO2 per stirrer, based on verified industry-standard calculations. Dahren’s copper wire is 65% lower in embedded carbon than the industrial average.

“ABB’s aim in supporting low-carbon suppliers is to reduce the greenhouse gases in its own emissions accounting.” says Norén. “We also strive to build a supply chain ecosystem with a low-carbon and ultimately a zero-carbon approach at its center.”

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