Following COP26, over 90% of world GDP is now covered by net zero commitments. But, as pointed out in a recent article by management consultants McKinsey & Company, the move to net zero will require unprecedented supplies of the raw materials – predominantly metals – used in the manufacture of green technologies.
As a result, the pressure is now on the mining and metals sector to ensure availability of materials such as copper (for electrification), tellurium (for solar panels), and lithium and cobalt (for batteries). In some cases, this may require scaling up existing production by a factor of ten or more.
How will this be achieved? According to McKinsey, the sector will need to innovate, not only to increase supply of raw materials, but also to reduce their carbon footprint, by addressing emissions during production and supply.
One particular area where such innovation will be key is the steel-making industry. Steel is a critical component of renewable technologies, including electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines (in fact, 71-79% of an average wind turbine’s mass is steel). Based on figures published by climate and energy think-tank Ember, every tonne of steel made via the traditional Blast Furnace-Basic Oxygen Furnace (BF-BOF) method uses 780 kg of coal, and emits between 1.8 to 3.0 tonnes of CO2.
Steel production without coal (sometimes called green or fossil-free steel) is already underway. Swedish steel company SSAB have helped in developing HYBRIT (Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology), in which coal is replaced with fossil-free electricity and hydrogen. In October 2021, Volvo Group unveiled the world’s first vehicle made of fossil-free steel produced by SSAB – appropriately, a load carrier machine for use in mining.
However, green steel production is still in its infancy, and decarbonisation of the steel industry is just one of the many challenges involved in supplying the materials needed to achieve a transition to net zero. McKinsey believes that:
“Technological innovation will be an important lever both to enable debottlenecking and growth (for example, advanced analytics in mining and processing) and to facilitate reduction of the carbon footprint in operations (for example, fleet electrification, water management)”.