Ovako steel mill in Hofors, Sweden

Swedish steel mill turns to hydrogen for full-scale production

Image credit: Ovako

Steel manufacturer Ovako has built a hydrogen facility at one of its steel mills in Sweden, with eyes set on it being fully operational this summer. E&T learns more about the project, and the role it plays in the company’s long-term goal of climate-neutral steel production.

Tucked away in a quaint town south of Stockholm lies one of Ovako’s nine production facilities. Its Hofors site has its roots traced back to the mid-16th century and today serves as the company’s hub, with production in steel and billet rolling mills, and in tube and ring mills.

Now, the steel mill welcomes a new addition to its Hofors location as part of the company’s next steps in its decarbonisation journey: a hydrogen plant.

Indeed, Ovako’s new hydrogen plant in Hofors will be one of the first in the world to heat steel with hydrogen prior to rolling in an existing production environment. It is the company’s next major step towards carbon-neutral steel production by replacing liquified petroleum gas (LPG) with fossil-free hydrogen.

“We would like to show the world that you can actually heat steel without carbon dioxide, and that we are doing it now,” Mikael Persson, project manager at Ovako, told E&T. “The project will give other players working in steel a technological advantage to help reduce the steel industry’s overall carbon footprint.”

Close-up of ES modules in electrolyser house

The new hydrogen plant in Hofors will make Ovako the first in the world to heat steel with hydrogen prior to rolling, and is the next major step towards climate-neutral steel production.

Image credit: Siobhan Doyle

According to Ovako, the 17MW plant will generate 3,500m3 of fossil-free hydrogen per hour. The conversion to hydrogen will also enable Ovako to reduce its CO2 emissions for steel production in Hofors by 50 per cent from already low levels.

Ovako’s Hofors steel mill is also now home to the largest electrolyser in Europe. It has a capacity of eight tonnes of hydrogen per day and a power rating of 20MW, the team at the site said.

Persson took us through to the electrolyser house, which is located close to the furnaces to ensure smoother production. The electrolyser hall itself is a modular design comprising eight stacks. Ovako has also installed scrubbers, storage tanks, compressors and pipework, plus electrical transformers and rectifiers, and has integrated control and automation systems within the hydrogen plant, meaning a large part of its infrastructure is already in place.

The company aims to have its electrolyser start full-scale production after the summer break, with Ovako stating that once fully operational the plant could help cut its CO2 emissions by an estimated 20,000 tonnes per year.

Buffer storage tank for hydrogen outside of plant

E&T observed on-site that Ovako will not store the hydrogen, but rather the site has a buffer storage tank located outside (bottom left) that kicks into gear when need during the process.

Image credit: Siobhan Doyle

Ovako’s approach to using hydrogen at the mill involves borrowing drinking water for a short period. The plant draws the water and splits this into hydrogen and oxygen (O2) via electricity drawn from the Nordic grid. The system will then combine the H2 and O2 into oxyfuel for injection in the furnace, where combustion re-forms water.

This approach requires only a few minutes of storage as a buffer for fluctuations in production and demand, according to experts at Ovako.

Anders Lugnet, group technical specialist of Energy & Furnace Technology at Ovako, said the team has been working on furnace modernisation for a long time to make its furnaces as productive and energy efficient as possible. “It’s very exciting that we now have proof that it is possible to use hydrogen in heating without affecting the quality of the steel,” he adds.

The hydrogen system was first successfully trialled back in 2020, whereby the team at Hofors reprogrammed its control system with H2 parameters, allowing the team to switch between H2 or LPG/NG as a fuel source to heat its furnaces at its rolling mills.

Line up of Ovako steel

Ovako said it has provide products based solely on carbon-neutral steel production by counterbalance the remaining carbon emissions through carbon offsets from 2022.

Image credit: Ovako

In November 2022, Ovako secured an environmental permit from the Land and Environmental Court in Östersund to construct its electrolyser, which is believed to be the largest in Sweden.

The initiative is also supported by the Swedish Energy Agency, with the shared goal of establishing industry-wide use of fossil-free hydrogen, expanding awareness of the potential of this fuel and achieving cost-effective production.

Ovako said the solution could also clear the way for large-scale and cost-effective production of hydrogen for applications such as fossil-free freight using fuel-cell trucks. With installations at multiple locations, this could enable a network with locally produced fossil-free hydrogen available for the transport sector.

The team said the solution can also be used flexibly and can therefore contribute to improved electricity grid stability, which allows for a higher proportion of renewable energy sources.

Ovako added the residual heat from the plant will also be used to generate district heating for nearby communities.

The hydrogen plant initiative at Ovako

The hydrogen project at Hofors is not only going to help reduce carbon within Ovako’s production line, but it also has the potential to help the local community and heavy-duty transport.

Image credit: Ovako

Persson stressed to E&T how the hydrogen initiative is an open technology and hopes the knowledge and research seen throughout the journey of the project will help pave the way for other steel manufacturers to follow suit in using hydrogen within their practices.

In fact, another Swedish-based steel company, H2 Green Steel, will draw knowledge and inspiration from the project at Hofors for its own large-scale hydrogen project starting in Sweden’s Boden in 2024.

“Together with Ovako, we can now test the production of fossil-free hydrogen and assess how this fuel can best be used to achieve and control the high temperatures required to produce high-quality steel,” Maria Persson Gulda, CTO at H2 Green Steel, said in a press release.

The hydrogen initiative at Hofors was established in collaboration with key players in the Swedish and Nordic industry such as H2 Green Steel, as well as the Volvo Group, Hitachi Energy and Nel Hydrogen, all of whom are supplying Ovako with different components and technical solutions for the plant.

Ovako said they have been conducting sustainability work for many years, with market reports citing an 80 per cent lower carbon footprint from the organisation’s products compared to the global average. This has been achieved through efficient processes, the use of fossil-free electricity and dedicated investments such as conversions to fossil-free fuels since 2015, according to the steel firm.

The company also uses only steel scrap as input material instead of iron ore. Since steel can be recycled an infinite number of times without its properties deteriorating, Ovako said it can manufacture steel with a lower climate impact without compromising its quality.

“Thanks to years of prioritisation and investments in modernising and improving the efficiency of our furnaces, including upgraded control and automation systems, Ovako is now ready to take the next step,” the company said. And its next step is turning to hydrogen.

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