More than 30 global customers have already shown interest in receiving shipments of the product, which will make a decisive contribution to the challenge of decarbonizing steel production
A journey of almost two decades of research in Vale’s laboratories in Minas Gerais took on a new chapter on Tuesday 12th, when the company’s president, Eduardo Bartolomeo, symbolically started up the world’s first iron ore briquette plant at the Tubarão Unit in Vitória (ES). The product developed by Vale has the potential to revolutionize the steel industry, reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the blast furnace by up to 10% or making it possible to produce zero-emission steel in the future, when green hydrogen becomes available.
“We are offering a product that will support our customers, the steel manufacturers, in adapting to the emission reduction targets being adopted by governments around the world, contributing to the fight against climate change,” explained Eduardo Bartolomeo. “In addition, we are inducing Brazil’s neo-industrialization, which will be based on low-carbon industry, and once again fulfilling Vale’s vocation as an anchor of regional development,” he said.
During the inauguration ceremony of the briquette plant, the governor of Espírito Santo, Renato Casagrande, highlighted the convergence between Vale’s and the state’s decarbonization plans: “As we have a decarbonization plan, which is a 27% reduction by 2030, 50% by 2040 and 100% by 2050, Vale will play a fundamental role. This is a step that will be followed by other steps towards our sustainability.”
Espírito Santo’s Vice-governor and Secretary for Development, Ricardo Ferraço, said: “It was here in Espírito Santo that Brazil saw the first ore pelletizing plant in the country. With this extraordinary R&D work that Vale’s employees have put in place, we are presenting the world with the first briquette plant, which emits less CO2 and is therefore part of our project to decarbonize the economy.”
Load tests at the first plant began in August and showed good results, making it possible for the first plant to begin operating in 2023. A second plant in Tubarão is scheduled to open at the beginning of next year. Together, they will have the capacity to produce 6 million tons per year – the result of an investment of US$ 256 million, which generated 2,300 jobs at the peak of construction.
More than 30 companies have already shown interest in receiving shipments of briquette in 2024. As it is an innovative product, production for the first two years will be used for testing at these clients’ facilities. Most of the interested parties are from Europe and the Middle East, but there have been requests from clients all over the world, including Brazil, guaranteeing demand for more than a year. In 2024, the two Tubarão plants will produce around 2.5 million tons. Production will gradually increase until it reaches 6 million tons per year.
“The interest shown by clients makes us confident that briquettes are here to revolutionize steel production,” explains Marcello Spinelli, executive vice president of Iron Ore Solutions. “The decarbonization of the steel industry will take place in stages. In the first, our clients are looking for ways to increase operational efficiency in the blast furnace route, reducing energy expenditure and, consequently, reducing CO2 emissions. At this stage, the briquette already makes a difference. And in the final stage, when green hydrogen will be available, the briquette will contribute to the production of zero-emission steel, which will be done through the direct reduction route, considered ‘cleaner’ than the blast furnace.”
The iron ore briquette, a Brazilian innovation
The briquette is produced from the low-temperature agglomeration of high-quality iron ore using a technological solution of binders, which gives the final product high mechanical strength. Announced by Vale in 2021, the product emits less particulates and gases such as sulphur dioxide (SOX) and nitrogen oxide (NOX) when compared to traditional agglomeration processes, as well as dispensing with the use of water in its manufacture.
The development of briquettes began at Vale’s Ferrous Technology Center (CTF) in Nova Lima (state of Minas Gerais) around 20 years ago. The idea of agglomerating iron ore through briquetting was not new, but researchers had difficulty ensuring that the product maintained its integrity in the blast furnace. Vale developed a binder solution that solved this problem. Tests were carried out in the laboratory, then in small-scale furnaces and finally industrial tests in the blast furnace, which proved the product’s performance and value.
Vale is currently developing a version of the briquette for the direct reduction route. Experimental tests have been carried out successfully and the company has already started the first industrial test, in a reactor in North America.
The briquette and the road to green steel
Worldwide steel production takes place mainly via two routes: the blast furnace route and the direct reduction route. The blast furnace process is widely used by steel mills around the world but is highly emissions-intensive due to the use of coke (produced from mineral coal) as the main input. In this route, the use of briquettes can replace sintering, the process in which the iron ore is agglomerated, potentially reducing customers’ GHG emissions by up to 10%.
For steel production via the direct reduction route, natural gas is used as an alternative to coke. In this process, briquettes and also pellets are used to produce HBI (hot-briquetted iron) – an intermediate product between iron ore and steel – which is then placed in an electric furnace to produce steel with lower emissions than the traditional route via blast furnace.
Direct reduction furnaces are used in regions with an abundance of natural gas at competitive prices, such as the Middle East. Last year, we signed agreements with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman to create Mega Hubs, industrial complexes for the production of HBI, initially using natural gas as an energy source. In the future, with the use of green hydrogen instead of gas, HBI could enable the production of green steel, with zero GHG emissions.
We have also signed two partnerships for feasibility studies on Mega Hubs in Brazil and the United States.
Emissions reduction targets
The briquette is part of Vale’s strategy to reduce scope 3 emissions, those related to the value chain, by 15% by 2035. The company has already signed agreements to offer decarbonization solutions with more than 50 clients, who are responsible for 35% of these emissions. Among the proposed solutions is the construction of briquette plants co-located on the premises of some customers.
Vale also aims to reduce its net direct and indirect carbon emissions (scopes 1 and 2) by 33% by 2030, as a first step towards zero net emissions by 2050.