Steelmaking is about to end at Port Talbot after perhaps 900 years. Sticking plaster measures that simply postpone closure are not enough. New sustainable advantages must be created.

The iron ore, coal and.limestone used at Port Talbot is all imported. The coastal location was once an advantage. However high UK energy costs due to subsidies for intermittent energy sources have overwhelmed the advantage. Adding additional production subsidies for the steel making industry just continues the market distortions.

The facilities at Port Talbot for unloading iron ore, coal and limestone will be shut.

The only remaining sustainable advantage for steel making in Port Talbot is access to the UK market, such as the giant Margam Abbey strip mill Immediately adjacent to the steel making plant.

A return to low cost steel production in the UK can revive the metalworking production industry.

This paper describes the potential for making Green Steel with Red Hydrogen. It has has been written for the non specialist without an engineering background.

Green Steel

Traditional virgin steel making is done most cheaply where iron ore, coal and limestone can be mined or transported at low cost to feed blast furnaces. The process ‘reduces’ the ore to metal.

Making steel in blast furnaces cannot continue. Steel making in blast furnaces is a major contributor to the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide thought to contribute to Global Warming. For example, in Wales, about a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions are due to the Port Talbot blast furnaces.

However, abandoning the industry in the UK will not lead to reductions in carbon dioxide emissions if there is mere substitution by imported steel produced in less environmentally concerned countries. The UK needs to make low cost green steel for its own use and to displace blast furnace steel as an import and from the world market via exports.

There is also a case for access to high purity ‘virgin’ steel in the UK for technical reasons. Newly produced steel has higher tensile strengths and better surface finish.

There will be demand. Tanks, warships and their gun barrels will be needed soon thanks to the war in Ukraine. A zero carbon economy will require a large fleet of nuclear reactors with containment vessels made of very high purity steel. Cans for food and razor blades need surface quality that only virgin steel can provide. Recycling scrap steel through Electric Arc Furnaces does not achieve the same level of quality. There are nuances but they are not material for this discussion. So new steel must be made for the most quality sensitive applications.

Very high quality ore virgin steel can be made in electric arc furnaces, but it is an expensive process. Tata Another alternative is the HISARNA process being developed by Tata Steel in the Netherlands which uses finely powdered raw materials in a conventional chemistry but much lower CO2 output. This is still in the R&D stage.

Virgin steel can also be made by the Hybrit process (see below). This has moved beyond R&D to industral use. Hybrit is the first step on the road to transform the economics of making steel.

The EU leads with hydrogen in steel making

In a conventional blast furnace, carbon in the form of coke, in the presence of limestone, strips the oxygen away from iron ore (directly reduces it) to leave behind the metal. This process produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide.

Hydrogen which also attracts oxygen can be used for Direct Reduction to produce sponge iron without the use of coke and limestone. This is then further refined in an electric arc furnace to make iron. The Finno-Swedish research project Hybrit is already using this process to deliver steel to Volvo. A Swedish firm H2 Green Steel is building a large scale plant to use the process. The European Union is backing this move to hydrogen.

The following companies have announced plans or even started construction projects to convert at least a part of their production to hydrogen steel. European companies dominate.

Hydrogen steel in the EU

Hydrogen steel in the Rest of the World

The US announced a Hydrogen Demand Action plan in February 2023. This included an intention to study hydrogen production in steel but there have been no material results so far. Russia has very substantial plans to make hydrogen and planned to capture a large share of the world market but has no known plans for Direct Reduction.

Hydrogen may also be used as a substitute for carbon based fuels in electric arc furnaces. Tata supported by the UK government proposes to add additional electric arc furnaces (EAF) at Port Talbot to melt scrap to compensate for the closure of the blast furnaces.

Scrap Steel can be recycled in an Electric Arc Furnace. Melting scrap steel has its place. The exact amount depends on the year, Covid had an impact, but the UK UK has exported 10 million tonnes of scrap steel in a year to other countries. UK demand has been 15 million tonnes, much of which can be satisfied with recycled scrap. For example, Liberty Steel Dalzell makes heavy steel plate for shipbuilding from recycled scrap.

Scrap steel does not have the high tensile capability of virgin steel so it is not suitable for strutural use, nuclear containment vessels, gun barrels or roll into thin high surface quality items like cans and razor blades. Electric Arc Furnaces can adapted to make virgin steel using very high quality iron ore as an input. The process is expensive and quantities are small..

Then there is steel made in an Electic Arc Furnace from iron ore reduced by hydrogen. Tata and Liberty Steel are already using EU money to develop hydrogen based production for virgin steel in the Netherlands and France respectively. There is a risk that such technology will never come to the UK. The UK needs to entice foreign developers with cheap hydrogen. It can be done. The UK even has an advantage as will be discussed.

Coloured Hydrogens

There are a variety of ways of making hydrogen. They are described by colours but the terminology is very inconsistent between industry bodies. To reduce confusion Customer Refocus has produced a guide to the colours of hydrogen. Follow the link for further information.

The colour of hydrogen that can put the UK at the front of the steel industry is Red, like the Welsh Dragon.

Red Hydrogen

Red hydrogen is a plausible UK advantage.

Hydrogen and oxygen can be produced from water by high temperature chemical reactions in the presence of catalysts. This is far more thermodynamically efficient than electrolysis (The Blue hydrogens) and inherently lower cost requiring only heat without the losses of conversion to electricity.

Iodine and sulphur are used for intermediate compounds in the process but are available for reuse at the end of the cycle thus costing nothing. The process requires high temperatures 900°C. It has been demonstrated at industrial semi tech scale in Japan with a High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactor providing the heat.

The inputs are high temperature provided at very low fuel cost by nuclear reactors and water. This is an inherently low cost process as nuclear heat can be produced at very low fuel cost.

The outputs are hydrogen, oxygen, surplus heat (that can still generate electricity) and at the cost of some sulphur, sulphuric acid. These are all useable in steel making.

The UK has unique experience in operating a fleet of Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors (AGRs). The UK has operated them for four decades. No other country has the operational experience and consequent engineering know-how. This can enhance any development programme for high-temperature gas cooling. Currently there is no plan to use this experience. Wales has an industrial cluster that supplies components to the nuclear industry and existing sites already used for nuclear reactors. This access to skills and expereince makes reactor development a real option.

The Japanese High Temperature Test Reactor first produced Red Hydrogen in 2004. In 2010 the HTTR achieved 50 days of continuous operation at semi-tech scale (30 MW) useful enough for industrial production. The Fukushima incident resulted in the closure of the project. It was reopened in 2021 and the HTTR  has been producing hydrogen continuously ever since. A much larger unit is being planned with Mitsubishi Heavy Industry in cooperation with Air Liquide. The Japanese government aims to be producing 3 million tonnes of hydrogen a year by 2030. The French nuclear industry has also declared interest in developing this source of hydrogen. Mitsubishi declared the intention to invest in red hydrogen production across Europe, the Middle East and Africa at COP28. Giant reactors are not needed. China National Nuclear Corporation has built a Small Modular High Temperature Reactor rated at 200 MW.

The National Nuclear Laboratory in the UK and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency have a long history of cooperation. Their working agreement was renewed this year, 2023. Cooperation on red hydrogen would make this agreement economically meaningful.

It is a case where the UK making its own deal with Japan might move faster than the EU which is weighed down with conflicting interests, Including Germany’s reluctance to engage with nuclear technology, although of course France is already in place.


Green virgin steel can be made with hydrogen.

Black hydrogen is cheap but dirty. Blue hydrogen is low carbon but selling electricity is always a better option than hydrogen production for volume uses. Red hydrogen is potentially about as cheap as water with useful by products. The UK has the skills to join this industry with a site in Port Talbot. Success would transform the balance of market power in world steel making restore profitable metalworking production to the UK economy as well as provide a base for a more general zero carbon hydrogen economy not dependent on natural gas for backup. The main effort should be located in and around Port Talbot as part of levelling up efforts.

Proposed Goals for a Red Hydrogen project

The global hydrogen economy was stillborn because Blue/Green Hydrogen is forever tied to the price of electricity which competes with hydrogen in many applications. Red hydrogen breaks that link as it is thermodynamically more economical to make. Customer Refocus proposes that the UK Government actually talks to the Welsh Government about the following program.

Web links for further reference

This is not a set of academic references. These are media releases accessible to the general reader.

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