Everybody is talking about sustainability, but what does it mean? And how is the production of iron and steel related to it? The concept of sustainability is as much a key element of voestalpine’s actions as are resource conservation and life cycle assessments.
The concept of sustainability is more than 300 years old. But its basic principle, namely, to act in ways that consider the potential depletion of natural resources in the long term, is becoming ever more significant. The newly developing synonym, so to speak, of sustainability—“think of your grandchildren”—has not yet become the go-to phrase, but it clearly expresses the goal of sustainable action. The “Report of the World Commission on the Environment and Development” also follows this logic.
Minimize Interventions in Nature
Initially, sustainability merely referred to a principle in forestry. Its core message: Never take more from nature than can grow back. We now know that it also is our responsibility to make adequate resources available for the generations coming after us—such as in the case of iron ore which, after all, is a raw material that does not “grow back.”
While iron ranks fourth on the list of the most widespread elements in the earth’s crust, mining it for economic purposes from workable deposits entails ever increasing expenditures: Cut away the overburden, separate ores with a low iron content and so-called wall rock and, frequently, endure long transportation routes to downstream processing sites. Additional resources are required for all of these steps. The smaller the quantity of “fresh” iron that must be produced to cover demand, the more sustainable our actions.
Steel’s status as a sustainable material benefits from its use in the closed materials cycle. For example, the World Steel Association (worldsteel) calculated that more than 25 billion tons of steel have been reused since 1900. This could help leave 35 billion tons of iron ore in the ground (a quantity that equates to the volume of ore mined in Brazil over a period of 80 years) at the level of 2017. Moreover, the recycling of steel has made it possible to not use 18 billion tons of coal for reducing the ore.
Hence recycling is one of the keys to the sustainable use of iron and steel, in turn confirming the life cycle assessment.
Sustainability in Numbers
- 37%: proportion of recycled steel contained in new steel products;
- 630 million tons: amount of annually recycled steel scrap; and
- 90%: average amount of steel used in cars that is recycled.
Worldwide, the steel industry converts one third of its base material into by-products for technological reasons. These, too, are sustainably recycled in a number of industries ranging from the construction to the electronics industry.
Sustainability and Life Cycle Assessment
The complexity of our world no longer allows us to construe the concept of sustainability as referring only to the resource-efficient use of raw materials and energy. With the help of research and development, technologies and production facilities are continually optimized with respect to resource conservation, environmental compatibility, and efficiency.
voestalpine Conserves Resources
- 15%: This is the percentage by which voestalpine lowered the amount of energy it needs to produce one ton of crude raw steel between 1999 and 2015.
- 22%: This is the percentage by which the Group lowered the amount of technologically unavoidable CO2 emissions in the past three decades.
Hence the company’s consistent optimization of production plants and processes has reached the threshold of CO2 emissions that is possible in both technological and practical terms. No further significant reduction will be feasible as long as carbon (which is generated by blast furnace coke) is used to reduce the number of iron compounds in the ore. As a result, voestalpine is conducting research on new processes that open up new ways of producing steel based on sustainably generated hydrogen.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) refers to the analysis of products over their useful life and is an unequivocal indicator of sustainable practices. Applied to a material, LCA considers the use of resources associated with the material’s production, processing as well as reuse and recycling. The result is unequivocal: Steel is the most sustainable material among all non-renewable structural materials.
In the coming weeks, our blog will introduce you to other aspects of sustainability and their application in voestalpine, the technology group.