Robinson Research Institute’s hydrogen-steelmaking research wins Innovation Award

Dr Chris Bumby, Principal Scientist, Robinson Research Institute, has received the HERA 2020 Innovation Award, in recognition of his work towards developing a hydrogen-ironmaking process. This novel process has the potential to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from New Zealand’s steel industry.

The HERA 2020 Innovation Award is presented by HERA (Heavy Engineering Research Association).

Photograph of a person receiving an award

Iron and steel are key materials in the modern economy, essential to the construction of pipelines, power-lines and transport infrastructure, as well as earthquake-resilient buildings. However, iron and steel manufacturing is a highly carbon-intensive process, which relies on a chemical reaction between carbon (coal) and oxygen from the iron ore, to form carbon dioxide gas as a product. This process, which has underpinned the iron and steelmaking process since the beginning of the iron age, is today responsible for more than a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.

The new process developed by Dr Chris Bumby’s team utilises hydrogen instead of coal. The hydrogen reacts with iron ore to form only water vapour, and hence the process has zero carbon dioxide emissions. Hydrogen can be generated simply from the electrolysis of water using electricity from wind, solar or geothermal sources. The Robinson Research Institute team has demonstrated its hydrogen-ironmaking reaction in a custom-built fluidised-bed reactor, which reacts New Zealand ironsand with hydrogen gas at temperatures up to 1000 ⁰C, to produce very high-purity iron (better than 99.8% iron).  As the hydrogen reactor is entirely electrically heated, it could be powered by New Zealand’s renewable electricity, ensuring that process heating also does not contribute any carbon dioxide emissions.

Speaking about receiving the award, Dr Bumby said “It’s an honour that our work has been recognised by HERA. Industrial sources of carbon dioxide must be addressed if we are to achieve a zero-carbon future, but this requires entirely new manufacturing chemistry to be developed. Having demonstrated our hydrogen-ironmaking process in the laboratory, we are ready to start addressing some of the key challenges in scaling up to an industrial process. But large-scale industrial scale-up will take a long time, so there is still a long way to go before this process can become a commercial reality.”

“This is an excellent research programme that combines stretchy, risky research and a potential to transform the steel production process.  It’s great to see the industry recognise both aspects of Chris’s research” said Professor Margaret Hyland, Vice-Provost (Research), Victoria University of Wellington.

“This technology is extremely promising, and if and when it can be scaled-up to commercial scale, it will have the ability to make the New Zealand steel making process, based on iron sands, a global leader in the zero carbon steel challenge” said Dr Troy Coyle, CEO, HERA.

The Robinson Research Institute’s hydrogen-ironmaking research is a collaboration between Victoria University of Wellington, the University of Wollongong and Callaghan Innovation. The team recently received a grant of $6.5 million over 5 years from the MBIE Endeavour fund, which will support continued research into the scale-up of hydrogen-steelmaking in New Zealand.