Even as steelmakers increasingly embrace more environmentally-friendly production techniques and roll out lower-carbon products, users can consider greener materials if they are serious about reducing their carbon footprint
Climate change advocates are set to find a major source of support for their cause in the form of America’s newly elected 46th president. Even before he took office on Jan.20, President Joe Biden had already pledged to pursue a comprehensive green agenda to combat climate change in the US and worldwide.
The renewed focus by the US comes as other nations, including China, Japan, South Korea and large parts of Europe, double down on efforts to do likewise and more in the hope of averting what might be a global catastrophe if the world continues to do the bare minimum to rein in carbon emissions.
Governments are by no means the only ones on a mission to save the planet. Among others, investors are increasingly calling for companies to pay greater heed to how their operations impact the environment.
Whether swayed by environmentalists or prodded by regulators, businesses – especially those in heavy industries – are stepping up their game.
Steel producers in the US for instance, are increasingly embracing what is called electric arc furnace (EAF) production. This is a technique that uses scrap metal rather than iron ore, which needs to be mined from the ground, as a raw material for making steel.
EAFs require less energy than traditional blast furnaces, which are powered by coal and used to smelt iron ore into pig iron for steelmaking. Unlike blast furnaces, EAFs can be stopped and restarted fairly quickly. Even so, EAF production accounts for less than a third of global steel output today.
Meanwhile, investments in clean energy have grown significantly. Global spending on renewable power and related infrastructure amounted to US$501 billion last year, up from $459 billion in 2019 and $235 billion in 2010, according to data from Bloomberg.
These are massive investments and should bode well for the world at large. However, gestation periods for green investments can be long. In the meantime, decarbonization across the globe remains largely a work in progress and sustainable widespread results are still not imminent.
Steel, for example, which is used in everything from transport to infrastructure to communications, has long been and continues to be an industry that is among the top three producers of carbon dioxide in the world. Every ton of steel produced in 2018 emitted on average 1.85 tons of carbon dioxide, according to global management consultancy McKinsey & Company.
Even as steelmakers increasingly embrace more environmentally-friendly production techniques and roll out lower-carbon products, users can at the same time consider greener materials if they are serious about reducing their carbon footprints.
While heavy industries like oil and gas, shipbuilding and construction will continue to require huge amounts of steel, certain ancillary operations in these trades can readily cut back steel usage without compromising productivity or having their entire work processes overhauled.
As a case in point, lifting of heavy objects like steel structures and concrete slabs has traditionally been carried out using ultra-strong slings made with steel wire ropes attached to cranes (vessels may be involved if the object to be hoisted is submerged in water or bound for the sea).
Over the last decade or so, synthetic lifting slings have started to surface as an alternative to steel slings. These synthetic slings are made from high-performance fibers used in applications such as body armor, race-car tires and fireproof clothing.
Synthetic slings are made by braiding together one or more types of fiber. Sourcing and processing fibers, as well as turning them into synthetic slings, is less laborious and energy-consuming than what goes into making steel slings. This makes synthetic slings far greener than steel slings.
The very nature of synthetic slings also means they are many times lighter than steel slings. This makes them much easier to store, transport and deploy. The logistical requirements are hence much less onerous.
Imagine a shipyard or construction company that requires multiple trucks and crews to move large amounts of steel slings for its lifting operations. With synthetic slings, it may well need just a fraction of those resources. The excess resources can then be deployed for other functions. Also, as steel slings are heavy and may require larger cranes because of their weight, an operator using synthetic slings can opt for smaller cranes to hoist the same payload.
All this means not only a smaller carbon footprint but also savings on time and costs. With the right calibration and design, a single synthetic sling can lift weights of up to 3,000 metric tons. This is highly comparable to steel slings. Synthetic slings can even be made stronger than their steel equivalent if required. Their very nature also makes them less of a safety hazard.
Moving away from steel slings to synthetic slings will not happen overnight for many companies in steel-dependent sectors.
The writer is chief technology officer of Singapore-based Future Synthetics, a materials science company.