Sheffield steelmakers could soon switch to cleaner fuel

18th September 2023

Sheffield’s world-renowned steelmakers could soon be switching to cleaner fuel, thanks to a pioneering new project.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield are working with partners from across the South Yorkshire region on the initiative, which could cut carbon emissions from Sheffield’s steel industry by 40 per cent.

Engineers from the University’s Energy Institute and Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) are working with energy company E.ON and Chesterfield Special Cylinders to explore ways of generating green hydrogen at Blackburn Meadows – a biomass-fuelled combined heat and power plant in Sheffield – that could then be used as a cleaner fuel source for the city’s steelmakers. 

During the early stages of the project, the researchers found there is a strong desire from steelmakers and other industries to find a cleaner alternative to natural gas in industrial processes. 

Switching steelmaking to being fuelled by hydrogen could be commercially viable, the project found, and sustainable over the longer term. It could maintain the performance and product quality for manufacturers with carbon emissions 41.8 per cent lower than if using natural gas. That means the three manufacturers taking part in the initial trials - Sheffield Forgemasters, Forged Solutions and Chesterfield Special Cylinders - could save around 3,500 tonnes of CO2 each year. 

The project has now been awarded £1 million of funding from the UK government – one of only two projects to receive such funding – to explore the commercial and engineering needs of generating, transporting and using hydrogen, as well as developing the commercial offer to industrial customers. If that is successful, the next stage will be a technical pilot project at the Blackburn Meadows site, with potential for future expansion if the project is taken forward to a full commercial demonstration.

The project to explore the potential of a more planet-friendly fuel for steelmakers is funded by the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero and its Net Zero Innovation Portfolio (NZIP) and is led by E.ON alongside Chesterfield Special Cylinders, Glass Futures, the University of Sheffield Energy Institute and Sheffield Forgemasters.

Professor Mohamed Pourkashanian, Head of the University of Sheffield Energy Institute, said: 

“We are thrilled that this project has received funding from the UK government to progress to a second stage. The work we’re doing for this at the University of Sheffield Energy Institute, including computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) modelling and in-depth hydrogen research, will help bring us a step closer to vital industrial decarbonisation and beyond.

“It is increasingly important to get the technological solutions we need to reduce emissions correct first time, so carrying out these detailed and industry-supported projects at the University of Sheffield Energy Institute means we can test, scale and ultimately implement these alternative solutions as efficiently as possible.”  

Chris Lovatt, Chief Operating Officer for UK Solutions at E.ON, said: 

“Hydrogen will play a significant role in our energy future, mainly powering energy-intensive industries and long-distance transport. It sits alongside the drive for heat pumps meeting domestic heating needs and a greater role for district energy schemes in urban areas.

“The first stages of our trial show the technology works and can support the industry’s needs for alternative fuels, as well as Sheffield’s wider sustainability ambitions. We know there are challenges to overcome before this becomes a viable solution for industry but the success so far has been rewarded by further funding from government to explore the potential of green hydrogen as a solution for Sheffield’s world-renowned steelmakers.”

Chris Walters, Chief Executive for Chesterfield Special Cylinder’s parent company Pressure Technologies, said: 

“Proudly based in South Yorkshire, Chesterfield Special Cylinders has designed and manufactured safety-critical hydrogen storage solutions for over 80 years. We are delighted to be a key partner in this project, exploring potential options to decarbonise forging processes at our Sheffield facility and showcasing our solutions for the safe and cost-effective storage and transportation of hydrogen."

Rob Ireson, Innovation and Partnerships Manager at Glass Futures, added: 

“We are excited to begin the next phase of this project to evaluate the performance of hydrogen and hydrogen-natural gas blends in steel manufacturing furnaces. Using data carried out in our Combustion Test Bed furnace in the first phase of research, which also formed the basis of the modelling carried out by the University of Sheffield, we can begin to apply the method for simulation and testing of hydrogen firing to furnaces at an industrial scale, to verify hydrogen’s effectiveness.”

Commenting on the project, Clive Betts, MP for Sheffield South East, said: 

“I very much welcome this announcement. Measures that can reduce carbon emissions from steel production in Sheffield are very welcome. I have previously visited the Blackburn Meadows site and I look forward to seeing how the pilot progresses.”

Gill Furniss, MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, added: 

“I congratulate E.ON's Blackburn Meadows biomass project on securing new funding for the second phase of the trial. I look forward to seeing the project develop innovative ways to decarbonise our important steel sector."

Green hydrogen is produced by splitting water into both hydrogen and oxygen through a process called electrolysis. Using electricity from renewable sources means it is seen as the cleanest option for industrial uses. The UK government has ambitions to reach 10GW of low carbon hydrogen generation by 2030.

Environmental pressures, the war in Ukraine and the spike in global gas prices have all driven interest in the benefits of switching to green hydrogen which has a strong role to play in decarbonising heavy, polluting industries.

In the case of Blackburn Meadows, electricity is created from waste wood that would otherwise have gone to landfill. Blackburn Meadows already captures the heat from the power generation process to feed a district heating network in the Lower Don Valley and houses a 10MW battery to support the local grid at times of high power demand.

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