State-controlled utility Vattenfall has signed a letter of intent to form a partnership with mining firm Kaunis Iron to develop fossil-free and electrified mining operations at an iron ore mine in northern Sweden.

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Future wind power projects in the region such as Vattenfall’s own Käymävaara and Selkävaara can play an important role for the two companies’ plans to decarbonise mining operations at the Pajala mine in Sweden’s Norbotten region at the border with Finland, the company said.

The very large and thinly populated region near the Arctic Circle is the epicenter of Sweden’s current onshore wind power boom, and also home to the gigawatt-scale Markbygden wind power complex that is currently being built.

"It is very positive that we are now joining forces with Kaunis Iron to take a step towards increased electrification in order to phase out fossil fuels, which is a necessary step in our joint work on the greatest challenge of our time,” Vattenfall chief executive Anna Borg said.

Electrifying mining trains

Vattenfall and Kaunis Iron want to find solutions to reduce the need for fossil fuels in mining operations, but didn’t specify yet which. The utility said the two companies also aim for the electrification of rock and passenger transports in the mine and other parts of the plant in the mining site.

An investigation is already underway into fossil-free transport solutions between the mine in Kaunisvaara and the trans-shipment terminal in Pitkäjärvi.

The initiative with Kaunis Iron is already Vattenfall's third project for fossil-free metal production.

Fossil-free steel

Vattenfall and partners in the HYBRIT consortium in the summer of 2019 already have started operations at what they claim to be the world’s first pilot plant dedicated to the production of fossil-free steel at Luleå, also in northern Sweden.

The pilot plant for the production of sponge iron in Luleå uses green hydrogen produced from renewable energy, while Vattenfall told Recharge there are no hydrogen or steel-making components involved at Kaunis Iron.

But the miner’s chief executive Klas Dagertun stressed the need for Sweden’s mining industry to become green.

"We have high ambitions when it comes to not merely meeting the requirements already in place for sustainability. We have expressed our vision that we will supply the world's most sustainable iron ore," Dagertun said.

“The Swedish mining industry is facing major changes to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and develop climate-efficient and responsible mining operations.”

German and Italian projects

The utility also has a cooperation with Swedish mining company Boliden regarding the electrification of mines and smelters, which includes battery solutions with a view to supporting the electricity grid and optimising electricity consumption.

First efforts to decarbonise mining and steelmaking are slowly also getting off the ground in other countries, such as in Germany, where steel-maker Thyssenkrupp jointly with utility RWE is also mulling using hydrogen instead of coke and pulverised coal in the steel-making process.

And a consortium including a unit of EDF, metals group Tenaris and energy infrastructure specialist Snam this week signed a letter of intent to deploy a 20MW hydrogen electrolyser at a pilot project at Tenaris’s steel pipe facility at Dalmine, Italy, in order to use hydrogen in parts of the steel-making process.

UPDATE to add more detail on Vattenfall, Boliden and EDF