Could this be Iron Age 2.0 for Australia?

October 2, 2019

October 2, 2019

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Could this be Iron Age 2.0 for Australia?

Could the Fourth Industrial Revolution actually be a new Iron Age? We’re living in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and steelmaking is coming along for the ride.

Could the Fourth Industrial Revolution actually be a new Iron Age? We’re living in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and steelmaking is coming along for the ride.

The first three Industrial Revolutions each had their own profound effect on society 

The First Industrial Revolution brought us the steam engine, the factory, and most importantly, the middle class.

By the early 20th Century, advances in science introduced the Second Industrial Revolution and is there anything more emblematic of this time than the T Model Ford, the first mass-produced car, built on an assembly line? This would be the beginning of the modern age.

Following WWII, the Third Industrial Revolution started – the Digital Revolution. It was all computing and communications. The first computer was the size of a house but was sluggish to say the least. Our phones today have thousands of times the processing power of those early computers and we can connect with anyone in the world, instantly.

And that brings us to now: The Fourth Industrial Revolution 

We have robots! 3D printing! And the promise (or threat) of AI. There’s genetic sequencing. We’re pretty much living in a 1960s Sci-Fi.

However, the past 150 years of rapid industrialisation have left us in a pickle: the environment is not looking too crash hot. While our quality of life is incredible, is it sustainable?

The defining features of this Revolution won’t just be about AI and robotics – they’ll focus on the sustainability of the environment and society. 

We’re seeing a lot of social pressure around environmental preservation. As a result, big businesses are moving toward more sustainable practices, including in mining.

Rio Tinto is working with its biggest Chinese customer, Baowu Steel Group to tackle climate change. They’re spending $400 million on transitioning their shipping away from bunker fuel to cleaner natural gas. China Baowu is in similar agreements with Canada, Apple, and Alcoa to develop a carbon-free method of aluminium production.

At present, coal-burning steel mills are the main issue. They account for 7%-9%  of the global carbon emissions. As carbon taxes cut into their bottom line, steelmakers are looking for greener alternatives.


The steel-making revolution is coming

Environmental degradation is a global preoccupation. However, the demand for steel is growing as cities expand and buildings get taller.

While steelmaking processes have continually improved since the 1960s, with the process taking only 40% of the energy it did then, steelmaking is still a big polluter.

A Swedish steel making plant may have the answer with a new technology – HYBRIT (Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology). It’s a production method that aims to replace coal-burning steel mills with hydrogen-based (renewably sourced) processes. Both coal and hydrogen can be used to remove impurities from iron ore. Carbon in coal reacts with oxygen in iron ore to create CO2. But when hydrogen is used instead, it releases plain old steam. 

At first, this production method will cost 20-30% more than traditional steelmaking. However, that gap will likely shrink over time as there is more access to renewable energy and CO2 taxes increase.

While it’s not yet commercially available, the goal is to use it industrially by 2035.  This innovation could do away with coal-burning steel mills in the near future. In the meantime, in some parts of the world where they have access to abundant gas, electric arc furnaces are making steel with far lower carbon dioxide emissions than the traditional blast furnace technology (which requires the use of metallurgical or coking coal to make the steel). The feed for these steel plants must be high quality and includes in large part direct reduction iron (DRI).  DRI in turn requires iron feed of the highest quality, typically DR-grade iron pellets.

The shift toward these low carbon practices will inevitably create a demand for better quality feed to manufacture the steel, with fewer impurities

While the widespread use of HYBRIT, for example, seems far away, producers are in the current climate looking towards ‘high grade’ iron ore to not only bridge the cost gap (as the higher the grade, the more efficient it is to produce), but in a true win win, due to these added efficiencies expend even less energy, continuing to minimise the environmental impact.

Why Australia is geared up for a new Iron Age

Carpentaria’s Hawsons Iron Project is on track to become Broken Hill’s next major mine.

In a time when the quality of iron is declining globally, the Hawsons Iron Project is planned to produce up to 10 million tonnes of high quality iron ore products annually. Hawsons Superrade® pellet feed will be the world’s highest grade iron ore product at 70%Fe.

Better yet, the mine will be located just 60km from Broken Hill with all of the expensive infrastructure networks and access to water already there.

Hawsons will meet the demand for ultra-high quality iron that will support the transition to low-pollution steelmaking.

As we set into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we’ll need better building materials that are highly sustainable.

Could this be Iron Age 2.0 for Australia?


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