Stainless Steel Sector Gets Its Sights on Sustainability

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Sustainable development continues to filter down into the business world. In April, the British Stainless Steel Association held its first conference on the theme. Delegates heard that stainless steel may have a vital role in solving environmental problems in applications such as renewable energy projects and more fuel-efficient vehicles. But they were also told that regulatory and competitive forces are posing them novel sustainability challenges.

Working out a sector's level of engagement with sustainability can often take a while. Sometimes, though, an individual who is close enough to know but distant enough to tell it how it is can help do the job.
Ivor Kirman, president of the Nickel Development Institute (NiDI), told the BSSA conference of his experience at several other stainless steel conferences over the past three years. 'I have usually been the lone voice talking about sustainable development and its associated opportunities and challenges. I have had a very mixed reception - polite, but often puzzled and sometimes irritated.'

The puzzlement was because sustainability had 'not yet appeared clearly on the radar screens' of delegates at those events, not least because they were hearing no sustainability messages 'through their normal communication routes - through the supply chain, through their customers.'

And the irritation? His audiences may have wanted to hear about the opportunities which sustainable development might bring in its wake, but they were less receptive to talk of threats, said Dr Kirman. Stainless steel was, after all, growing fast and taking more markets every year, and no threat appeared to be looming on the horizon.

Growth and diversity

Stainless steel has, indeed, been developing nicely. Its average growth rate of around 6% per year since 1950 has outpaced that of most other metals, taking global production from one million to almost 20 million tonnes over that period.

About one-third of the material goes into domestic products such as sinks, utensils, cutlery, dishwashers and microwaves. The remainder is used in a diversity of applications in oil and gas, chemicals, food and drink, nuclear fuel reprocessing, transport and construction - where there has lately been a visibly growing range of applications in roofing and cladding.

Stainless steel enthusiasts will readily recite the material's attractive features. It is tough, hygienic and corrosion resistant, and has a low reactivity and a range of valuable mechanical and physical properties.

The material also has a long life, and is eminently recyclable. From there it is but a short step to argue that it is already making a major contribution to sustainability - as several did at the BSSA conference. And the step beyond that is to portray it as being part of the solution as society seeks to invent more environmentally sustainable ways of meeting its needs.

Judging by the audience reaction, the industry's opportunities to contribute solutions are even greater than they had contemplated.

Solutions for renewable energy

Dr Phil Thompson, a director of British Maritime Technology, whetted delegates' appetite by sketching out the future of renewable energy. Global capital expenditure on renewables to 2010 will amount to a conservative $270 billion, he suggested, with Europe claiming a 30% share.

Offshore technologies are a rapidly emerging sector of this market in Europe, with wind set to dominate for the next few years, and wave and tidal technologies representing a potentially 'massive' market for the UK beyond 2010 (ENDS Report 332, pp 28-31 ).

For stainless steel producers, there will be obvious opportunities in supplying material for the gearbox and hydraulics of offshore turbines. But beyond that, said Dr Thompson, the offshore sector was 'ripe for innovative applications...to manage risk and reliability' in demanding environments.

Philip Bacon, managing director of technology transfer consultancy Europus, developed the theme. He outlined his work with Tidal Hydraulic Generators, which recently received a £1.6 million grant to install a prototype five-turbine tidal stream unit off Pembrokeshire.

The prototype will have a maximum generating capacity of 1MW. The company is hoping that it will provide the stepping-stone to a 50MW tidal power station within six years.

A tricky challenge facing the developers is how to ensure the long-term integrity of their turbines. In the six-knot current in which the prototype will operate, entrained shells and sand will expose them to a 'grit blasting' environment, said Mr Bacon. In the slower currents around much of Scotland, the problem will be one of encrustation by marine organisms and how to remove them.

The turbines will be substantial structures - six metres in diameter in the prototype array, and ten metres in a current velocity of two knots.

The scale of these installations was a 'mouthwatering' prospect for potential materials suppliers, one delegate commented. As BSSA director Duncan Munro observed after the conference, an order for 50-100 tonnes of stainless steel would be a substantial one for a mill, let alone a stockist.

Phil Bacon offered the industry considerable encouragement. Selection of materials for the turbines was still under way - 'but we do see stainless steel taking a major place,' he said.

Two further energy projects in which Mr Bacon is involved depend fundamentally on the properties of stainless steel. One is a high-efficiency solar thermal heat pipe absorber. The second is a super vacuum insulation panel with a wide operating temperature range and potential applications in refrigeration, buildings, furnaces and transport. Factories to make both products are in the pipeline.

Service innovation for the car industry

Another presentation which had delegates salivating came from Claes Magnusson, R&D co-ordinator for body components at Volvo Cars - although this time the prospect of a new market came with a stiff challenge.

In 1998, European car manufacturers signed a voluntary agreement to improve the average fuel efficiency of new vehicles by 25% by 2008. The latest progress report showed that they have slipped behind schedule (ENDS Report 336, pp 53-54 ).

Part of the problem, Professor Magnusson said, was that the weight of new cars has continued to increase. Improvements in engine efficiency will help offset this, but manufacturers will also need to look at downsizing and at lighter materials - which is where stainless steel may come in.

Professor Magnusson described the results of recent experiments in which the capabilities of austenitic stainless steel were compared with those of conventional cold rolled carbon steel, with a rear bumper used as the test component.

The stainless grades performed better on key criteria such as formability, crash energy absorption, tensile strength and stiffness. The latter two properties are difficult to generate in combination with carbon steels, and mean that it should be possible to design stainless steel components with a decreased thickness while still meeting performance requirements.

However, Professor Magnusson cautioned that competitive pricing will be needed for stainless to break into the car market - and there was a further rider as well.

At Volvo's stamping plant in Sweden, he said, 250,000 tonnes of sheet metal comes in - but only 120,000 tonnes goes out in the product. The remainder becomes waste during the stamping and cutting of coils. Although this material is sent for recycling, it represents a significant environmental load in terms of process and transport energy and emissions.

Stainless steel's relatively high cost makes this an extra hurdle for the material to overcome. Maximising its scrap value would require it to be segregated from other metals - and with some 350 different types of coil coming into the stamping plant that would be a demanding task.

According to Professor Magnusson, it would not be enough for stainless steel producers to supply just a tailored blank to the plant. Volvo was looking for 'a real new way of thinking on this.'

Afterwards, he explained that Volvo's operation in Sweden has followed US car manufacturers in introducing a new service model for its vehicle coating operations. Instead of selling paints and other products to the company, the supplier is now involved in the coating operation and paid per car body painted - aligning its incentives with Volvo's goal of minimising resource use.

Two years ago, a survey of US businesses in the vehicles, metals and electronics businesses found that cost savings on chemicals and associated overheads from implementing this type of service model have ranged up to 40% - with significant environmental benefits (ENDS Report 313, pp 22-26 ). The model may not be directly replicable for metals, but there could be substantial rewards for a metals supplier who rises to Volvo's challenge.

Regulatory cloud

There are, however, some clouds on the horizon for the industry. One is regulatory, and the other shaped by competition.

On the regulatory front, stainless steel is affected by several items of EU legislation on chemicals and products such as drinking water, food and medical devices, as well as the recent Directives on end-of-life vehicles and waste electrical and electronic equipment.

A major preoccupation for the industry is the classification of nickel as a skin sensitiser and potential carcinogen. Under the Directive on dangerous preparations, this means that stainless steels containing more than 1% nickel must be labelled with risk phrases drawing users' attention to both properties.

The industry regards both classifications as manifestly unjust, since they derive from legislation intended for chemical mixtures rather than alloys. It has been working for eight years to have the law revised - and was making headway when the European Commission suspended work on the issue to make room for its grand reform of the EU's chemicals policy.

The Commission's proposals will be unveiled shortly. But the industry knows enough to be concerned that what was an irritant before could become a serious threat.

Tony Newson of iron and steel federation Eurofer explained that, under the new policy, chemicals meeting 'high concern' criteria will have to be authorised for specific uses. Authorisation may be for a limited period, with the outcome depending on the results of socio-economic impact assessments and availability of substitutes.

Some stakeholders, said Mr Newson, want sensitisation to be among the 'high concern' properties, and some MEPs have already called for all sensitisers to be banned by 2012. The outcome could be a ban on both the production and use of stainless steels containing nickel across the EU.

That is a worst case scenario. 'In the best case, with luck and a lot of effort,' said NiDI's Ivor Kirman, stainless steel will emerge with its market access untrammelled - but that happy outcome should not be taken for granted.

Risk in the marketplace

The coming battle, he suggested, will be over whether substances are regulated on the basis of risk or hazard. Industry had a fight on its hands if it was to ensure that regulators took 'mature' decisions based on risk.

Dr Kirman believes that some companies have already given up the ghost on this issue. As an example, he pointed to a recent article in the BSSA's newsletter about Philips Electronics' 'EcoVision' programme. This included a target to reduce the use of so-called category one hazardous substances by 98% between 1998 and 2002.

'I find it very, very hard to believe that that figure of 98% was based on a cool analysis of risk and benefit,' said Dr Kirman. 'When a company like Philips is basing its policies on hazard rather than risk, it is clear that we will have a struggle to achieve a mature dialogue about risk.'

In fact, the example was not well chosen, although it serves to illustrate the vulnerability of materials suppliers to the changing preferences of downstream businesses.

Philips' target was actually to reduce emissions of the most hazardous substances by 98%. The list includes substances such as asbestos, CFCs and PCBs which are banned with good reason in most countries; and others, like dioxins, whose release to the environment is heavily restricted. On some, such as mercury, cadmium and certain brominated flame retardants, Philips saw where the wind was blowing and acted early.

The painful lesson of initiatives such as these is that companies close to the market often have a very different position on hazardous materials to that of their suppliers.

An example from the late 1980s, when scientific and public concern about the ozone layer was at its height, was the British aerosol industry's decision that it was in the business of selling aerosols and not CFC propellants - and an almost overnight shift into hydrocarbons followed. There have been many other cases since - including retailers' shift out of PVC and withdrawal of other chemicals from their products and packaging (see p 32 ).

This is discomfiting stuff for materials suppliers - but it underlines the need for careful defensive expenditures and robust product stewardship to protect important markets.

NiDI itself has learned about this from recent brushes with EU regulators which have seen the industry lose some of its outlets in jewellery and coins, and its continuing battle to head off a ban on nickel-cadmium batteries. It has also seen how the impact of legislation works its way through its customers to trigger new demands on materials suppliers.

An example given by Dr Kirman in a recent speech was the end-of-life vehicles Directive. Faced with restrictions on certain hazardous substances, motor manufacturers discovered that they did not know how much of these substances went into their vehicles, particularly in bought-in components and alloys.

As a result, he said, they have told suppliers to certify exactly what is in their products. Moreover, with producer responsibility giving them long-term liability for recovery and disposal of their products, they have begun working out whether to impose their own restrictions on materials - 'by consulting with the NGOs from whom the regulators appear to be taking their agenda.'

'We may find that some of our customers will become more precautionary than our regulators,' Dr Kirman speculated.

NiDI has begun preparing its defences by commissioning two substantial studies. One, a socio-economic assessment of nickel, anticipates the possible new EU authorisation system for chemicals. The second is a materials flow analysis of nickel in Europe's economy. Both may prove important to the stainless steel sector.

LCIs and LCAs

Environmental considerations are also affecting material markets more competitive forces. From the early 1990s, the steel industry found the environmental credentials of its products being challenged by suppliers of aluminium, wood, concrete and plastics - often using the results of life-cycle assessments.

Steel suffered because it was slower off the mark. But in 1995 the International Iron and Steel Institute completed its first life-cycle study - a cradle-to-gate life-cycle inventory of carbon steel which provided the data for subsequent product-specific LCAs.

After updating that study recently, the IISI has now moved on to conduct a cradle-to-gate LCI for stainless steel. The work is focused on flat products made from austenitic and ferritic grades, with data being provided by more than two dozen producers across the globe.

A key goal is to provide high quality data for future LCAs for specific stainless steel products. Data requests for this purpose from customers seeking the best environmental option - especially in the motor industry, but also construction, process industries and medical products - are increasing, according to Edward Price, LCA manager at the IISI. If the industry is not proactive on the issue, he warned, 'there is a significant risk of isolation in an area where other companies see opportunities for marketplace gains.'

Towards a strategy

NiDI's Ivor Kirman offered three pieces of advice to the stainless steel sector if it was to rise to the challenges of sustainable development and ensure its future market access. It should, he said, commit to continuous improvement, take effective action, and demonstrate that it was doing so - in respect of its energy and raw material consumption, emissions, waste management and product stewardship.

BSSA chief Duncan Munro sees the conference as a starting-point towards that goal. Sustainable development is, he acknowledges, 'quite a new concept to most of our membership' - one exception being the leading UK producer, AvestaPolarit (see box ).

Unusually, the BSSA is a vertical trade body, and its membership extends through the whole supply chain - primary producers, processors, stockists, distributors, fabricators and end users. Making sustainability meaningful for such a diverse array of companies will not be straightforward.

Nevertheless, Mr Munro has set his sights on producing a strategic document on sustainability, reviewing the positive benefits of stainless steel and providing benchmarks for the supply chain to help members improve their performance.

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