Swedish steelmaker SSAB has supplied automotive group Volvo with what is claimed as the world’s first fossil-free steel, produced from iron reduced using 100% hydrogen instead of coal and coke in the process.

The trial delivery was hailed as a step towards a completely fossil-free value chain as part of the HYBRIT (Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology) consortium led by utility Vattenfall that also includes iron mining company LKAB.

Vattenfall didn't specify, whether the electricity used at HYBRIT comes from renewable sources only. A company press official told Recharge that Vattenfall projects usually source their power from the NordPool electricity wholesale market that sells power, which is more than 98% fossil-free, but may contain nuclear power as well next to renewable electricity.

The companies aim to start delivering the steel to the market on an industrial scale starting in 2026.

The consortium in the summer of 2020 started operations on a first pilot plant dedicated to the production of fossil free steel in Luleå, northern Sweden, which Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven at the time described as “the biggest technological leap in the steel industry in 1,000 years.”

Sponge iron produced with the help of hydrogen from the plant has since been used to produce the first steel made with the novel technology.

"We are extremely pleased that our joint HYBRIT project has taken another decisive step forward by enabling SSAB to produce the first fossil-free steel and deliver it to customers," Vattenfall chief executive Anna Borg said at a ceremony in Luleå.

The steel sector is one of the hardest-to-abate industries, and responsible for 7% of global fossil-fuel based CO2 emissions, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said. The agency, however, in a report last year estimated that less than a tenth of steel produced globally will use renewable hydrogen as its energy source by mid-century.

Nevertheless, hydrogen-to-metals projects are proliferating, particularly in Europe, with sector heavy-weights such as Germany’s Salzgitter or Indian-German steel giant Arcelor-Mittal also planning pilot projects, in Germany and Spain respectively.

“The world's first fossil-free steel is not only a major breakthrough for SSAB, it also proves that change is possible and the climate impact of the global steel industry can be significantly reduced,” SSAB CEO Martin Lindqvist said.

“We hope this will inspire others to accelerate the pace of transformation.”

The steelmaker reckons it will be able to reduce the entire CO2 emissions of all of Sweden by 10% and those of Finland by 7%, just by switching to the HYBRIT technology.

But to produce sufficient hydrogen to make SSAB’s current iron and steel production fossil-free would require 15 terawatt hours of fossil-free electricity. For SSAB be able to source those volumes, Sweden must first speed up and simplify the permitting procedures for the expansion of its power grid and electricity production, Vattenfall said.

UPDATES to add that electricity for HYBRIT project may include nuclear power