CHICAGO | People might picture steel mills as dirty, smoke-belching factories, but that's not the modern-day reality.
Steam, not smoke, billows from the smokestacks of ArcelorMittal's Indiana Harbor complex in East Chicago. The Belgium-based steelmaker has been pursuing a number of environmentally-friendly initiatives, including a boiler that generates electricity and the development of lighter steel for cars.
Blake Zuidema, a research and development director, touted the company's sustainability initiatives during an "Increasing Competitiveness Through Green Growth" panel discussion at the Alliance for Regional Development summit last week in Chicago.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded ArcelorMittal its highest Energy Star award. The steelmaker has been recognized six years in a row for its efforts to reduce energy intensity.
The company is designing lighter auto parts and stronger but more lightweight grades of steel that cut down on vehicle emissions. ArcelorMittal is supplying the steel that goes into wind turbines, and figuring out how to make them bigger and taller. The global company has even developed steel with solar cells built into the surface, for electricity-generating roof shingles that are being sold in Europe.
"Burns Harbor makes advanced high-strength plates that make bigger and taller wind towers," Zuidema said. "We made an investment in Indiana Harbor to make line pipe steel to transport valuable energy resources cost-effectively and in a responsible manner. There have been tremendous opportunities for sustainable growth."
Overall, the steel industry has been getting greener. Steelmakers have reduced air and water emissions by 90 percent over the last 10 years, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute. The amount of energy needed to produce a ton of steel has dropped by 34 percent since 1972.
ArcelorMittal – which runs former Acme, Bethlehem, Inland, and LTV facilities in the Calumet Region – is committed to environmental responsibility, Zuidema said.
"We've reduced our carbon footprint on a per ton basis," he said. "We've made a public statement that we will continue to reduce our carbon footprint."
Last year, the steelmaker finished work on a $63.2 million project to install a new energy-efficient boiler and other upgrades at Indiana Harbor. The boiler uses heat from the blast furnace to generate steam that in turn powers the plant.
The boiler generates enough megawatts to power 40,000 homes for a year, which reducing the steelmaker's carbon footprint by 34,000 tons annually. That steam-generated electricity saves the company $20 million a year, reducing the cost of steelmaking by $5 a ton.
"Responsible environmental behavior pays," Zuidema said.
ArcelorMittal is trying to make cars more environmentally-friendly by making them more lightweight so they comply with new fuel-efficiency standards. Federal regulations require vehicles to have an average mileage of 54.5 mph by 2025.
The steelmaker launched its S-in-motion research program that looked for ways automakers could cut weight from vehicles while still using steel. Engineers, including at ArcelorMittal's research and development center in East Chicago, came up with designs that include cars doors that are up to 34 percent lighter.
Honda just started using one of the steelmaker's designs in its Acura MDX midsized SUV.
"If your customers are successful, you're sustainable in the long run," Zuidema said.