Green

One of the major gripes about environmental legislation is that while the West creates ever stricter laws and ever lower emissions targets, many parts of the world completely flout agreements or do not even sign up to them in the first place.

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The steel industries of Europe and the U.S. frequently complain that they must meet tough emission targets that their competitors in China, India and elsewhere can avoid either because their governments have not signed up to such restrictions, or because they simply are not enforced.

The True Cost of Air Pollution

Well, finally after years of complaints it appears the tide is turning but tragically it has come about due to an appalling loss of life that is only just being recognized. Air pollution alone causes 6.5 million early deaths a year the Guardian newspaper reports. That is double the number of people lost to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, and four times the number killed on the world’s roads. In Africa, air pollution kills three times more people than malnutrition. Read more

You probably wouldn’t be the first to nominate the Daily Mail or its owner, the Daily Mail and General Trust, for an award for cutting edge journalism but a recent article from Daily Mail Australia certainly grabs your attention.

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It underlines why China has such an intractable problem with pollution. It also suggests how Chinese steel mills are managing to have such a disruptive effect on global steel prices apparently bereft as they are of the legislation imposed on the rest of the world.

Unlicensed Steel Mills

In a series of graphic photographs (please click through to the link above, MetalMiner cannot republish the photos due to copyright) the paper illustrates the appalling state of many private steel plants on the fringes of the Chinese steelmaking industry. Certainly, the industry is dominated by major state enterprises, but it is also riddled with hundreds of smaller steel plants operating almost entirely outside the law.

Paying little more than bribes to buy off investigating officials, these mills not only ignore worker’s rights and safety but compliance with air and soil pollution legislation is non-existent. When you pay peanuts, ignore environmental requirements (and hence costs) and operate on the fringe the dividing line between profit and loss is blurred. These mills not only pollute the environment not just to the detriment of their workers and the local community, they also, when it suits them, dump excess capacity both domestically and for export.

The photos, taken by photojournalist Kevin Frayer in an arid region in the country’s north called Inner Mongolia show images of steel mills we have not seen in the west since the days of Charles Dickens.

Not surprisingly, after several years of a “war on pollution” Beijing was again suffering from a yellow smog alert recently with hundreds of flights cancelled and highways closed across northern China as average concentrations of small breathable particles known as PM 2.5 soared about 500 micrograms per cubic meter in Beijing and surrounding regions, according to Reuters.

Shadow Steel Industry

Although Beijing has taken strenuous measures to control emissions with so much energy produced from coal and so many industries still failing to meet environmental standards, it’s no surprise progress is slow. While China is the world’s biggest polluter it is also, to its credit, a global leader in establishing renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. Yet, as these photographs show, a great deal more needs to be done. Until Beijing cleans up the production side of the equation, no amount of new renewable energy technology is going to solve the problem.

The development of natural gas and hydrogren technologies is a focus of research at Voestalpine AG‘s new DRI hot-briquetted iron ore facility near Corpus Christi, Texas.

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“We are hoping to run blast furnaces with hydrogen instead of coal and coke,” said Dr. Wolfgang Eder, Voestalpine’s chairman and CEO. “Development of such technology will take a 20-30-year time frame, but I am convinced we’ll hit that target.”

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This blurry “art shot” of Voestalpine’s 450-foot HBI production facility signifies that this will be a “think piece” about research, smog and environmental sustainability. Or Jeff took this from the bus. Jeff seriously took this from the bus. Source: Jeff Yoders

Natural Gas and Natural Hydrogen

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about the potential of converting natural gas (the fuel material for Voestalpine’s iron ore reduction tower) to hydrogen to decarbonize dirty production processes. Voestalpine’s head and environmental heart certainly seem like they’re in the right place, but what might be advantageous, for the U.S. and South Texas, is the jobs that that research will bring. Read more

The United Nations Environmental Program predicted that between 2007 and 2020, the amount of e-waste exported to India will jump by as much as 500%, and between 200% and 400% in South Africa and China.

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E-waste is an informal name for electronic products nearing the end of their “useful life.” Computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, copiers, and fax machines are common e-waste products. Processing and recycling them is proving to be a major challenge for Indian authorities. To add to the export of e-waste, recent studies have revealed that about 1.8 million metric tons of e-waste are being generated within India, itself, annually. That figure is likely to climb to 5.2 mmt by 2020 at the predicted annual compounded rate of 30%. But only about 2.5% of this e-waste gets recycled, experts say.

E-waste figured in a major way on the agenda of a huge convention on non-ferrous minerals and metals in India’s steel city of Jamshedpur, last week. The delegates deliberated the challenges posed by the non-ferrous industry including the generation of e-waste. Read more

The U.K. is far from alone in recognizing that in order to achieve any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, nations have to embrace renewable energy and nuclear power. For those energy generation technologies without obvious natural benefits, like hydro-electric power, it isn’t a case of one technology or the other.

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Both renewable and nuclear energy require essentially subsidized energy tariffs to make them viable. In the case of renewables it is feed-in rates and the provision of back-up power for when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine that add to the carbon footprint. Britain’s proposed Hinckley Point nuclear project has an index-linked, guaranteed feed-in tariff at $121.54 per megawatt/hour (£92.50 MWh) for 35 years in order to make the $21.02 billion (£16 billion) project for two reactors with a combined output of 3.26 gigawatts viable. Compare that to recent auctions for solar projects which went at around $104.10/MWh (£79.23/MWh) and that number gets close to the price of natural gas before back-up power is factored in.

Carbon Emissions Flourish Elsewhere

Of course, many countries in the world are doing no more than paying lip service to reducing carbon emissions. India, for example, has its sights set on bringing onstream as much new generating capacity as possible to meet rising population and industrial demand. As anyone who has spent time in the sub-continent will know, reliable electricity supply is a still a luxury for many of the massive country’s regions.

Nuclear may be thought of as yesterday's technology, but its emission-less power generation makes it attractive. Source: Adobe Stock/mandritoiou.

Nuclear may be thought of as yesterday’s technology, but its emission-less power generation makes it attractive. Source: Adobe Stock/mandritoiou.

A 1.3 billion and rising population lives there so it should come as no surprise that — although new solar and wind is being added at breakneck speed including some 36 gw of renewables or 15% of its demand, not shabby by any means — India is planning to add another 69 gw of coal-fired power generation as well. New capacity will be progressively better technology, but much of the existing coal infrastructure is of low efficiency and, therefore, particularly polluting for every KWh produced. Where Japan manages efficiency levels around 40%, the U.S. is said to be around 35%, but India struggles to meet just 25%. Read more

The Steel Recycling Institute recently released the first industry-wide Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) for cold-formed steel studs and track manufactured in the U.S. and Canada. The EPD quantifies the “cradle-to-gate” life-cycle environmental impacts, and can be used by architects and engineers to document their impacts for certification of buildings under the U.S. Green Building Council‘s LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and other credit-based green building certification systems.

What Are EPDs?

EPDs are a standardized way of quantifying the environmental impact of a product or system. Declarations include information on the environmental impact of raw material acquisition, energy use and efficiency, content of materials and chemical substances, emissions to air, soil and water and waste generation.

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An EPD is created and verified in accordance with the International Standard ISO 14025, developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). An EPD is also based on a peer-reviewed life-cycle assessment (LCA).

LEED has accepted EPDs for building products since version 4 of its system was released. Having EPDs opens steel products up to specification in a much wider range of building projects. Having them not only earns green credits, but it also is viewed by industry professionals as a measure of supply chain transparency.

Cold-formed steel studs and track can now be declared and tracked for LEED projects. Source: Adobe Stock/ft2010.

Cold-formed steel studs and track can now be declared and tracked for LEED projects. Source: Adobe Stock/ft2010.

This is the first industry-wide assessment of full life cycle environmental impacts of steel commercial building products in North America. Roll-formed from galvanized steel sheet into a variety of shapes, cold-formed steel studs and track are being as the primary structural system for buildings up to nine stories in height and have been used for curtain walls and interior partitions for decades.

“Environmental impacts of materials are critical decision factors for architects, engineers and builders,” said Lawrence Kavanagh, president of Steel Market Development Institute, a business unit of American Iron and Steel Institute. “With the construction industry moving to comprehensive assessments of a product’s entire life cycle, it’s important this EPD is now being added to the resources we and our partners have developed for our customers in the construction industry.”

Cold-Formed Studs and Track, the First of Many EPDs

Kavanagh also said this is the first of several EPDs that will be released this year and next and that SMDI hopes to, eventually, have declarations available for all steel building products manufactured in the US.

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The ability of steel to be recycled has always been a strong selling point in getting it specified into LEED and other green buildings but EPDs could help certain products be much more easily specified by architects into building projects.

An FT article last week lauded the intent of General Electric and Chesapeake Energy to form an alliance to promote the use of natural gas as a fuel for cars and trucks.

The intent is to develop gas re-fueling infrastructure with a target to add 250 compressing and recharging units principally at gasoline filling stations. Currently there are about 1,000 natural gas fillings stations in the US, according to an article in the South Bend Tribune; but only half of those are available to the public, with the rest operated by local governments or private companies to refuel buses and other fleet vehicles.

Compare that to regular gasoline fuelling stations of which there are said to be some 159,000 outlets in the US.

Indeed, there is only one car produced in the US to run on natural gas, the Indiana-built Civic Natural Gas Honda. Around 13,000 have been sold since the car first went on sale in 1998, mostly to fleets. With such low production runs, currently about 4,000 per year, Honda can’t be making any money out of the model even at the high premium over the gasoline versions — some $10,000 on the base model — but should be applauded for sticking to their script. They clearly realize natural gas cars are going to be, like electric vehicles (EVs), a long-haul technology.

But why would Honda, General Electric, Chesapeake and the big three automakers (GM and Chrysler are to follow Ford with natural gas pickups) be supporting what must be the least well-known among the alternative fuel sources?

Cost

Putting initial vehicle costs to one side for a moment, for an equivalent energy content, crude oil is roughly seven times the current price of natural gas in the US.

GE and Chesaspeake are quoted as saying that at today’s prices, a vehicle driving 25,700 miles a year would save $1,500 a year from using natural gas rather than gasoline, while a Channel 13 News report interviewed a canny individual who had plumbed natural gas supply to a compressor in his own home for about $3,000, so he could fill up his car’s natural gas tank at home for an estimated $7 compared to over $50 for gasoline.

The environmental lobby is torn. Diehards prefer EVs for their zero emissions, conveniently ignoring the fact that they require power stations to generate the electricity by saying that if the power comes from a wind turbine or solar farm, it is almost zero emissions. In reality, of course, that is rarely the case; but the attraction of natural gas is that (although not pollution-free) it is much less polluting than gasoline.

According to the State of California, quoted in Earthlinktech: “Typical CNG vehicles can reduce smog-forming emissions of carbon monoxide by 70%, non-methane organic gas by 87% and oxides of nitrogen by 87%. Also, CNG vehicles typically have 20% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline powered cars.”

To be continued in Part Two.

Continued from Part One.

In another twist to the tale, a report in the FT says GM seems to be at an advanced stage of discussions with France’s Peugeot, also a struggling carmaker with excess capacity, to jointly develop engines, transmission systems and entire vehicles that would be sold under their respective brands. While this could have design and production cost savings, it would really only make sense if between them they closed excess production capacity.

While no shares will change hands in the proposed cooperation between GM and Peugeot, it has similarities to Chrysler’s cooperation with and later 53.5-percent takeover by Italy’s Fiat, the loss-making carmaker that owns the Lancia and Alfa Romeo brands in addition to Fiat. That merger could be said to be timely for Fiat, as the combined company reported a small net profit for 2011 and projected $1.5 to 2 billion net profit for 2012, largely on the back of a resurgent North American market for Chrysler brands.

On the other side of the coin, Tata’s Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has been investing something like $1 billion per year for the last few years and is set to double this next year as it expands production in the UK and overseas, and takes on more staff to meet record demand. Tata Motors bought Jaguar Land Rover from Ford in 2008, for £1.5 billion, in a move some derided as a mistake. Last year, JLR made a profit of £1.1 billion and this year’s profits are expected to be even higher still.

GM probably missed the boat in selling its European operations back in 2009.

Who would buy them in today’s market is unclear. GM could still make the operations profitable; they have great research and design resources and some plants that are highly efficient. Arguably, in a world where smaller cars are likely to be a long-term trend, a European design and production base is a strategic asset that could be of considerable benefit to the global GM corporate.

However, GM as a group will not be willing to carry the cost of a loss-making European division for long, and unpopular as it will be among European governments and unions, plants are going to have to close.

Continued from Part One.

The Costliness of Catalysts

To date, the use of PGM catalysts have made the up-front cost of fuel cells and the refurbishment of the devices over their life far too expensive to be widely adopted, but Acal Energy in the UK has developed a low-cost liquid catalyst that can be continuously regenerated, dramatically reducing the up-front and life-cycle costs.

Meanwhile, ITM Power has developed a hydrogen-fuel-generating unit that is entirely safe contained except for a supply of electricity and water. Ben Graziano, technology commercialization manager at the Carbon Trust, said between them the two technologies could help the industry be worth up to $1 billion in the UK and $26 billion globally by 2020, and up to $19 billion in the UK and $180 billion globally by 2050.

Grandstanding? Yes, probably, but the prize of affordable, low-emissions power is so valuable, maybe we can forgive the hyperbole. Fuel-cell automobiles and power generators for homes and businesses have far greater credibility than electric cars and windmills — if they can be brought to market at comparable cost.

I, for one, would sooner see my hard-earned tax receipts spent subsidizing (if they have to be spent in such a way) fuel cells that will allow me to travel longer distances, quietly, without emitting more than heat and water vapor, and with the prospect of 5-minute-stop refueling stations at the same location as current filling stations, rather than subsidizing electric cars that can’t do more than about 80 miles between re-charges and precious few charging points being available — even within cities, never mind in the countryside.

The numbers have yet to support the hype, but although we’re metals nerds, we say that if replacing PGMs by non-metallic compounds is the step that finally brings fuel cells to commercial reality, then we’ll see that as a welcome outcome.

Fuel cells are one of those technologies we have covered before, usually citing some manufacturer who is fan-faring a new technology purported to be game-changing for the cost structure of the hydrogen fuel cell market. So far, fuel cells are used predominantly in specialist applications such as submarines and space vehicles, or in remote areas where power requirements are low yet refueling is expensive or difficult — or both.

The breakthrough application would be an economically viable application in automobiles, but according to the FT, carmakers have sunk large amounts of money into hydrogen research programs with little to show for it so far, in terms of cars on the road. General Motors says it has invested $2 billion in the technology to date. But although it says it has a test fleet of 100 fuel-cell vehicles on the road in Europe and the US, which will be ready for market introduction by 2016, there is not a viable business model for providing a refueling infrastructure or firm details of what models will be powered by fuel cells.

The reality is as attractive as zero-carbon-emission vehicles are: if the vehicles are prohibitively expensive in the first place and there is not a robust, widespread refueling infrastructure in place, the public will not buy. Just witness sales of all electric vehicles — barely 1,000 plug-in vehicles were registered in Britain last year out of a market for some 2 million cars.

So the British government’s launch of two initiatives (backed, it must be said, by hard cash) sounds like something of a leap of faith if it wasn’t for the parties involved and some interesting technological developments. The first is a bringing-together of industry firms, including Air Liquide, Johnson Matthey, Daimler, GM, Shell, Total and others in a program called H2 Mobility, as part of a US and European-wide drive to map out the steps necessary to make the technology commercially viable by 2015.

In itself this could be yet another taxpayer-funded talking shop, but one hopes the presence of the oil companies may ensure that any resulting road map has sufficient critical thinking into the refueling infrastructure, which is seen as a make-or-break issue in widespread adoption. Oil firms cannot be said to have embraced the re-charging requirements of electric cars to date, probably because the technology still requires lengthy re-charging times incompatible with current gasoline forecourt layouts or power supply options.

The second initiative follows on neatly from this issue: the UK government is backing two firms in a joint effort to develop self-contained hydrogen refueling stations that could be introduced to just about any contemporary gas station, along with a liquid catalyst fuel cell that would bring down the up-front cost of the fuel cell, so that jointly, the power cost would drop to $37 per kW generated, making it competitive with conventional engines, say backers of the project, the Carbon Trust.

What about the costliness of catalysts? Read on in Part Two later today…