Steel innovator: ‘The brightest minds will flock to the most challenging of tasks’

By Scunthorpe Telegraph | Posted: 22 Nov 2017

Materials Processing Institute chief executive Chris McDonald has told how the most rewarding innovation can be found in the most demanding of environments. David Laister heard him address Lincolnshire Iron and Steel Institute and focus on steel’s emerging carbon reduction requirements.

Steelmaking’s complexities and continuous advancements make it an industry to “turn on” scientific minds with “sexy innovation” opportunities, a Scunthorpe audience has heard.

Chris McDonald, chief executive of the Materials Processing Institute, returned to his old stomping ground, having been a manager on the works in the Corus days a decade ago, describing a “real affinity” with long products and Scunthorpe itself.

Underlining how steel remains the second highest used construction material behind concrete, by some distance from the rest, he talked up an often down-trodden industry, going on to credit British Steel executive chairman Roland Junck with doing a vital job in Whitehall to return steelmaking to the national agenda.

“The primacy in all applications makes it essential for human life, be it for transport, for medical, for housing and so on,” he told the latest meeting of Lincolnshire Iron and Steel Institute. “It shows we are working in an incredibly vital industry, and one that needs to be financially self-sufficient.

“That’s where innovation comes in. Despite a lot of processes we work with having been around for so long, there is still tremendous scope for innovation, step changes in innovation.”

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Having led what was formerly Teesside Laboratories for nearly four years, he said: “There is a big demand for what we do, based on track record and the research assets we have.”

Stating key drivers are the development of advanced materials, recycling and low carbon energy, with a strong emphasis on the latter as such a carbon footprint becomes unacceptable, Mr McDonald explained how such huge challenges were also a draw for the brightest of minds.

“One advantage in the steel industry is we tend to do ourselves down a bit in terms of just how interesting and exciting the problems are we have,” he said. “You may imagine the sexy innovation is done in Rolls Royce, Siemens or Jaguar Land Rover. Our experience – when we get out and talk to researchers, instrumentation companies or universities, and talk to them about the problems, the opportunities for innovation, challenges and threats – is that we have really fascinating problems that turn people on and they really want to get involved. “We can be at the forefront of providing really exciting problems and challenges.”

Roland Junck, whose work on behalf of the wider industry was praised.

Linking in to the wider industrial landscape, he said: “When we talk about the fourth industrial revolution – automisation and digitisation – ‘Industry 4.0’ – the steel industry has been doing it for quite a long time. There are really exciting applications for this in the steel industry, much more than in a factory. Steel has some of the most exciting problems that we can work with.

“It is the kind of stuff we have always been doing – understanding what we are doing from a data management perspective, putting a control system around that, an advice system around that, automating some of the advice system, and they can apply big data technology as well to generate an extra level of foresight. It is an opportunity to showcase some of the things we are doing and put our hands up and say ‘we are already at the frontier of that’.”

He warned that dividing up product and process innovation wasn’t the best way forward, with a marriage of both required for the best results, and he also told how lessons from The Apprentice or business text books would not hold in steel when it came to choosing between high quality or low cost.

“In the steel industry we have to do both,” he said. “If you try to be purely a differentiator or purely low cost then you will be out of the market altogether. We need to develop products and improve processes continually. We can’t stop we have to keep doing it.”

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Mr McDonald described industry networks as key, and, turning to British Steel, he said: “This business has been very good at it. It is the conduit that forms knowledge, assembles it, and solves a problem, and that is a skill in itself. It is about connecting that knowledge together, getting that opportunity to develop and deliver. Identifying, managing and bringing other partners in too.” 

One partner is potentially government, when it comes to ensuring a playing field where steelmaking can thrive.

Asked about that relationship between works and Whitehall, he praised British Steel’s approach since coming into being 17 months ago.

Stating recognition was now being received, he told of times when ministers barely acknowledged it. Now Prime Minister Theresa May has even been on site at Scunthorpe – albeit during an election campaign. “What we would really like is a very engaged government and strong officers who are really engaged and want to do the right thing,” he said. “Roland Junck is an incredibly powerful voice of the industry. He has put a lot of work in on the steel sector deal; he is a credible person, who has come from overseas and explained to government how other countries do it. 

“There is still a really long way to go, but it is absolutely achievable. If you look at automotive, it was written off as a basket case in the Eighties, now it is up there as a flagship industry with aerospace.

“It is about making the case and then confidence. It has taken two years to get it recognised that the steel industry is important, and it may take a generation for that to become the default position because it is what people have grown up with.

“The work Roland Junck and the senior team have done is vital to the steel industry, and you are well represented from what I have seen.”  

Could hydrogen save our Queens?

The Queen Anne Blast Furnace.

HYDROGEN potential and carbon capture necessity were highlighted as low carbon steelmaking was brought into focus.

Mr McDonald said it can only be achieved by the decarbonising of blast furnaces or a switch to electric arc production.

With the four proud queens dominating Scunthorpe’s skyline, he gave an insight into what could be done, in one of the three core areas his organisation is being challenged on.

Having stated we are “reaching a point of unacceptability” around the carbon footprint in steelmaking, he has written papers on both potential solutions.

“Both have big financial implication and both are fairly challenging,” he said. “To extend the life of blast furnace into a low carbon age, you need blast furnace technology that is both financially and environmentally sustainable.

“What is important to consider is none of these technologies can deliver a significant reduction on carbon without carbon capture and storage or carbon capture and utilisation. We need to understand how we can attach it.”

Plans have previously been explored for a regional system linking up the works and the refineries with Drax Power Station at one extent and depleted North Sea gas fields. Mr McDonald also mentioned the possibility of attracting chemical processing usage to the site, warning that “process integration creates challenges – it is manageable, but it is complex”. 

He said: “If Scunthorpe is thinking ‘this is our future around this technology’ then there needs to be thinking starting now about how you manage this.”

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He said CCS could take the business so far, and that biomass and charcoal as feedstocks were further possibilities.

Another option is hydrogen injection, acting as a reductant to coke. “These are not easy technologies to work,” he said, adding that all the incremental steps could bring down the carbon footprint, but not totally.

“The best we can get down to is 10 per cent, and these are technologies that could take a decade or more to realise.”

He forecast that CCS or CCU could bring 60 per cent of the reduction, with biomass and hydrogen cutting a further 30 per cent.”

It isn’t all one-way though.

“There is capability for a steel plant to generate hydrogen,” he said, stating it needs a joined up approach from multiple industries to work.

“Hydrogen as a battery, looks on the face of it, an incredibly expensive thing to do, until you attach that to a high load intermittent energy user like a rolling mill,” he said.

“The challenge is integrating these activities together,” Mr McDonald said. 

He said the Austrians had a demonstrator project underway, and that work was being done here. “We are making a similar proposal for the UK, with big industrial partners, household names in energy and engineering, big industrial users coming together to try and look at some of these challenges,” he said. “Together there could be a solution that would drive the hydrogen economy forward. “There is a great role for steel to play as a user, as a hydrogen generator. It is a massive steel development and it is about thinking big, and it can only be achieved by real collaboration across industry and being prepared for the long term.”

Turning to younger members of the audience, of which there were several, he added: “Our responsibility is to really drive to zero carbon future, otherwise there won’t be an industry for us to work within in the future.”

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