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.”


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?


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…

Looks like ZincOx will drop the mining yoke and start pulling the recycling plow.

The FT reported that the UK-based company, originally invested in zinc mining, will be shifting over to zinc recycling to become profitable again. ZincOx built a plant in South Korea, and after it finally begins producing and selling finished zinc, looks to expand to Turkey, China, and the US.

The zinc market, as the FT points out, has had its share of volatility. LME inventories have risen since the start of 2012 in an already oversupplied market, as the graph below shows, and the zinc price is more than $2,000 per ton. (This, after falling from about $4,500 a ton in 2006 to just over $1,000 a ton in late 2008, according to the paper.)

Source: John Gross/Copper Journal

ZincOx will be adding to net global zinc production soon — perhaps as soon as five weeks from now, following final tests.

How the Technology Works

Electric arc furnace dust (EAFD) is a toxic byproduct of the EAF steelmaking process, containing cadmium, lead and zinc (18-24% grade). ZincOx has been honing a process for six years, by which they can extract the zinc portion from EAFD (at a purer grade than mining it from the ground, no less) and produce zinc concentrate.

For context, about 1.5 million tons of zinc are lost to dust during the EAF steelmaking process per year, while zinc production is about 12 million tons per year, according to a presentation last September by Andrew Woollett, ZincOx’s executive chairman.

In the presentation, Woollett outlined how the technology works by showing this slide:

Source: ZincOx Resources-Andrew Woollett

They take the dust and mix it with pulverized coal and put it into a briquette. Then they dry, cure and screen it to insert clean briquettes into a rotating hearth furnace (RHF), Woollett said. That yields 58% grade zinc concentrate, which goes to a zinc smelter, while the iron-based remainder can go back to EAF mills. Ultimately, it’s a sustainable, closed-loop process. (More detail on that here.)

How Steelmakers Win

EAFD has been a thorn in steelmakers’ sides for years, according to Joanne Hart in this article. “Many treat it as toxic waste, placing it in special bags and sending it to landfill sites, a process that is wasteful, environmentally questionable and costly.”

According to the FT, that can cost $40-50 per ton. Hart writes that operators of special kilns that recycle the waste “charge at least £50 [$78] a ton to remove the dust from steel furnaces and the zinc produced is relatively low grade.”

However, ZincOx offers to take the EAFD off steelmakers’ hands for free. (The new Korean plant will be able to process 200,000 tons of dust per year.)

“‘It’s very important to get the dust supply,” Woollett told the FT, ‘adding that he was forging strong ties with the steelmakers by offering deals where the waste suppliers would be compensated for rises in the zinc price. “‘We cut them in on the upside.’”

How the Zinc (Supply) Market Wins

  • Total zinc production potential next year: 92,000 tons. (Every 100 tons of dust can yield 22 tons of zinc.)
  • Companies such as Korea Zinc (with which ZincOx has already inked a deal) agree to buy the finished zinc; essentially a market is already in place.
  • Environmentally friendly recycling could make a dent in cleaning up China’s dirty zinc smelting industry.
  • According to the USGS, about 53% (134,000 tons) of the slab zinc produced in the US in 2011 was recovered from secondary materials—mainly electric arc furnace dust; this figure could definitely increase if ZincOx successfully brings its technology here.

The US’ pending trade dispute with China over solar cells and modules, covered on MetalMiner on Nov. 10, looks like it will be successful in encouraging China to review its sales strategy towards finished solar panels; this comes following advice received by trade lawyers hired by Chinese firms to advise them on the Commerce Department case, the NY Times reports.

Chinese solar panel manufacturers have apparently been advised they will stand little chance of success in the case, presumably because they are engaging in dumping and benefiting from subsidies, as US panel-makers claimed. Interestingly, like Japanese carmakers in the 1980s, Chinese solar panel manufacturers are said to be considering moving final assembly to the US so their panels become US-made.

However, because the case covers both cells and modules, China would have to give up cell manufacturing as well. The manufacture of solar panels is  essentially a four-step process. According to the NY Times, molten polysilicon is used to grow crystals or cast blocks of polycrystalline silicon as the first step. The second step is cutting and polishing the material into thin, smooth wafers. The third involves chemically treating the wafer and adding electrical contacts — this essentially makes it a solar cell. The fourth requires connecting 60 to 72 cells together, covering them in glass, a frame and adding an electrical junction box to make the finished module. It is this last stage the Chinese are considering moving to the US.

Good news, you may think, US assembly jobs and taxes! No, this final step in the process is said to be worth only some 15 percent of the cost of a panel and is either largely automated or uses low skilled labor. The value is in stages 1 and 2, which China is looking to keep at home, while shipping the finished wafers to South Korea or Taiwan for stage 3, thereby hoping to circumvent potential duties on Chinese origin components. However, because most of the intellectual property and capital investment is in the cell stage, U.S. manufacturers say they are confident they can compete with cells and modules made in other countries where the product is not dumped or subsidized, even if the wafers come from China. So the case is unlikely to be amended to meet the Chinese attempts to get around origin issues.

Continued in Part Two.

–Stuart Burns