Important milestone on the road to carbon-neutral metal production

Elkem’s long term goal is to achieve carbon-neutral metal production. Several long-term R&D projects are in place to develop the  necessary technology to reach this goal. 

Using CO₂ neutral charcoal instead of fossil coal as a reduction agent in the production of silicon and ferrosilicon is a key part of Elkem's sustainable production strategy. Elkem's ambition was that 20 per cent of the company's consumption of carbon as a reduction agent in the smelter process in Norwegian plants shall be charcoal in 2020. We met that goal ahead of time, in 2017.Reaching this target reduces fossil CO₂ emissions by 310,000 tonnes per year, compared to production with 100 per cent fossil carbon. We now want to increase the use of charcoal to 40 per cent by 2030. 

In 2017, Elkem emitted 1,772,737 tonnes of fossil CO₂, an increase from 2016 due to the inclusion of Elkem Rana. However, specific emissions of fossil CO₂ have gone down steadily, as Elkem has consitently worked to increase the use of biocarbon. 

Key questions that need to be answered are how charcoal quality can be optimised, and if and how furnace technology must be customised for the use of charcoal. The whole value chain is involved in the development process to ensure good decisions. This shows how cooperation between people at all levels of the organisation, from the operators who run the furnaces to the plant management, the procurement team, and the R&D specialists can accelerate sustainable change that is economically viable and good for the environment.

- The more biocarbon we use, the greater challenge it becomes, given current technology options. However, I am confident that we will be able to develop the necessary technology to reach our 2030 target of 40 per cent biocarbon- or even beyond, says CEO Helge Aasen.

Supply and logistic challenges

Another main challenge is the lack of an international market that can supply the amount of charcoal for metallurgical usage that is needed to reach Elkem’s goal of 40 per cent in 2030. This has led to the conclusion that Elkem must actively look at the possibility of sourcing charcoal from plantations in equatorial countries where trees grow rapidly and can provide a basis for industrial-scale charcoal production. 

While doing this Elkem has also established very strict controls for charcoal suppliers to ensure that timber comes from certified, sustainable sources and that the working conditions in the production process are acceptable and comply with basic human rights. Elkem has zero tolerance of corruption and non-compliance with laws and regulations. 

A third challenge is found in logistics. Charcoal is a voluminous product. To reduce costs and the negative environmental effects of long transportation, Elkem ideally seeks charcoal sources located close to the plants where it will be used. In South America this is possible and there are already well-established structures for charcoal production in place. The climate is also ideal for plantation production of timber for charcoal production: It takes only seven years for a eucalyptus tree to grow to full size. For Norway this is more challenging as it takes 30 years for a tree to grow to full size. Biocarbon production may however still be feasible in Norway as there are substantial amounts of forest wood that is no longer being utilised in other industries and needs to be harvested to make room for new growth. Elkem is therefore also exploring charcoal production in Norway, where several of Elkem's largest plants are located. 

A study done in 2016 by Elkem in cooperation with several other Norwegian companies confirmed that it would be possible to make charcoal from Norwegian spruce. There are however still a number of issues including long term timber availability and pricing, that need to be resolved before production can be decided. 

The carbon neutral metal production as we picture it.