idrogeno per alimentazione fonderie alluminio

Hydrogen to power aluminum foundries: what will the future be?

To date, the possibility of replacing the fossil fuels used by foundries with "green" hydrogen is held back by the need for huge investments.

The topic of decarbonization in the foundry sector has been the subject of numerous in-depth studies that Assofond has carried out, with the aim of "probing" the various hypotheses of technical solutions to the topic of replacing fossil fuels currently used as energy carriers in many furnaces used in foundry, both for the production of ferrous and non-ferrous castings.

From the analyzes carried out on the energy diagnoses carried out by foundry companies in 2018, in relation to the obligations placed on energy-intensive companies by the legislation on energy rationalisation, it emerged that of the total production of castings, only 21% is carried out using furnaces melters electricity, while the remaining quantity is made using gas furnaces, mainly methane (54%), or coke (25%).

In ferrous metal foundries (steel and cast iron), melting is carried out with cupola furnaces that use coke, with rotary furnaces with oxy-methane burners, and with electric induction or arc furnaces. Non-ferrous metal foundries mainly use gas furnaces.

The decarbonization of aluminum smelters and hydrogen

The policy undertaken by the European Union to combat greenhouse gas emissions, defined in the European Green Deal, has seen an acceleration, in relation to the objectives set in July 2021 by the European Commission with the new package of measures known as Fit for 55, aimed at achieving climate neutrality in 2050, with an intermediate objective for 2030 of reducing CO2 emissions by 55% compared to 1990 levels. This has made it more urgent to define strategies to implement, in the short term, processes of decarbonisation of industrial sectors, which can allow the achievement of the objectives of reducing climate-changing emissions set for 2030.

A study on the sectors has highlighted, for the various industrial sectors examined, the possible decarbonisation solutions that can be implemented in the medium/long term.

For the foundry, among the possible "levers" available in the path towards the decarbonisation of the sector by 2050, alongside furnace electrification solutions - which require huge economic investments as well as important changes to the company layout - more viable solutions have been identified for the gas ovens in the short term (from now to 2030) and in the medium-long term (to 2050). The framework of the contributions that the foundry sector can make to the decarbonisation process was also presented and, at the same time, the costs per tonne of CO2eq saved were assessed.

Among these levers, hypotheses have been identified for replacing fuel of fossil origin with "green" fuels, biomethane and/or green hydrogen (hydrogen produced by electrolysers powered by electricity from renewable sources).

PNRR and decarbonisation of foundries

The energy transition has found in the National Recovery and Resilience Plan the tool to allow, through important economic contributions, the implementation of projects in various areas.

Among the objectives envisaged by the Missions of the Plan there are themes such as:

  • Digitalisation;
  • Innovation;
  • Competitiveness;
  • Culture;
  • Green revolution and ecological transition;
  • Infrastructures for sustainable mobility;
  • Education and research, inclusion and cohesion, health.

The PNRR is fully consistent with the six pillars defined in Europe by the Next Generation EU (NGEU) and largely satisfies the parameters set by the European regulations on the quotas of "green" and digital projects.

Energy efficiency and the use of energy sources with low environmental impact, envisaged in the Plan, are at the center of the strategy that the foundry sector has defined to achieve the decarbonisation goals set by the European Green Deal.

Among the technologies that need development, the topic of hydrogen and the capture, transport and storage (CCUS) of CO2 are of potential interest for industrial sectors with a view to decarbonisation.

In particular, the use of hydrogen to replace fossil fuels has been the subject of the attention of Assofond which has evaluated possible replacements, initially partial (10 ÷ 20% mixture), of methane to power the burners of melting furnaces.

The various in-depth studies carried out on the technical tables, coordinated by Confindustria, of the Hard To Abate sectors, immediately highlighted that the high cost of producing "green" hydrogen from electrolysers today represents a limit which, in fact, makes this path for many sectors that could not sustain the economic impact of such a choice.

Now, the lack of hydrogen distribution infrastructure constitutes a further problem; using hydrogen to replace methane in ovens means making investments not only to build photovoltaic systems for the production of "green" energy and for electrolysers, but also for the necessary hydrogen storage systems. Even in the hypothesis of overcoming the aspects linked to the huge investments necessary, the obstacle of the OPEX costs linked to the production of hydrogen remains, unsustainable even when compared with the "stratospheric" levels reached by the price of methane during 2022; prices that had risked bringing many gas-consuming companies to their knees, even in the foundry sector.

The interventions envisaged by the PNRR dedicated to the development of the use of hydrogen in the identified Hard To Abate sectors (specifically: Mission M2 – Component C2 – Intervention 3. Promote the production, distribution and end uses of Hydrogen), have not resolved the problem of OPEX linked to the production of hydrogen, despite the fact that these obstacles had been repeatedly reported to the Ministry of the Environment and Energy Security by representatives of all Hard to Abate sectors, who complained about the lack of OPEX subsidies for the use of sustainable hydrogen in the Research and Development project. This therefore represents a major brake on investments.

The Ministerial Decree 21 October 2022, n. 463 has defined provisions regarding the methods and general criteria for the granting of the benefits provided by the PNRR in the context of Mission 2, Component 2, Investment 3.1 «Hydrogen production in disused industrial areas (hydrogenvalleys)» as well as investment 3.2 « Use of hydrogen in hard-to-abate sectors". The decree also regulates the methods for the recognition of "green" hydrogen and "renewable" hydrogen, the subject of the planned financing. Financing that covers investment expenses, while any support in relation to the management costs of the plants created in implementation of the PNRR remains excluded.

Following the publication of the Notice, Assofond carried out assessments regarding the possibility of accessing it, in particular in relation to Title III of the Notice dedicated to the Hard to Abate Sectors, and specifically in relation to the benefits provided for by the art. 8, letter a) of the decree, which allocates one billion euros "for the implementation of projects and interventions aimed at replacing at least ten percent of the methane and fossil fuels used in production processes", contacting some companies in the foundry sector ferrous and non-ferrous metals that use methane for melting furnaces, which have declared their interest and general availability to join a joint project to explore the technical aspects of the use of hydrogen.

The verification of the real possibilities of accessing funding, following the publication on 15 March 2023 of the public notice (for the presentation of project proposals referred to in article 10 of the decree of 21 October 2022, n.463, within the investment 3.2 “Use of hydrogen in hard-to-abate sectors”, mission 2, component 2, of the PNRR, coordinating the companies that had expressed interest), confirmed the difficulty of joining, mainly in relation on the one hand to the “minimum size ” of the amount of the investment requested (minimum amount of investment for research projects for the use of hydrogen in industrial processes: 500,000 euros), and on the other hand by the funding quota foreseen by the tender, oscillating between 25 and 50% of the eligible amount, which led to Assofond renouncing the project.

Aluminum and hydrogen foundries: so is there a possibility?

The hydrogen option remains, however, in the field also as an energy carrier to replace methane, mainly in relation to possible technological evolution, and to projects involving important industrial players who have invested in research and development. It is likely to believe that the proposed technological evolution could lead to the possibility of reducing production costs and that hydrogen could be distributed via dedicated networks, with consequent reductions in the overall costs that potential industrial users would have to bear today.


Source: In Fonderia – ll magazine dell’industria fusoria italiana