Friday, November 6, 2015

- November 6, 2015

The Energy Institute was fortunate to welcome a Penn State and College of Earth and Mineral Sciences alumnus, Brandie Sebastian, to the microphone for this week’s Energy Exchange. Brandie Sebastian, formerly Murphy, is the Life Cycle Assessment Manager for the Steel Recycling Institute headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA. With excitement in her eyes and Penn State nostalgia on her mind, Sebastian dug into her presentation: “Energy & Steel: A Life Cycle Perspective.” 

            The Steel Recycling Institute is a part of the American Iron and Steel Institute, which is a trade union representing the interests of the steel production industry throughout all of North America, Sebastian explained. “The Steelers actually pay us a royalty,” Sebastian continued after explaining the astounding resemblance between the Steel Recycling Institute logo and the logo for the NFL team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Focusing her conversation towards her specialty, Sebastian dove into the importance of designing steel products with both the beginning of and end of life of the product in mind. Her analyses encompass the life cycle of a steel product, spanning from raw material extraction, through transportation and into production methods. Each of these stages, individually, add up to what Sebastian referred to as studying “cradle to gate,” or the entire process of steel production from raw material to product, and how each are relevant to studying the recyclability of steel.

            “Steelmaking consumes an incredible amount of energy,” Sebastian explained as she continued on. She discussed the two types of steel making: Basic Oxygen Furnace, which is know as “primary” steel production, and Electric Arc Furnace, which is better known as “secondary” steel production. Sebastian, however, doesn’t like to think of EAF as secondary at all; BOF furnaces account for approximately 40% of the steel production in the United States, while the remaining 60% of steel production comes out of EAF furnaces. BOF furnaces utilize a traditional steel making process of combining and molding iron ore and coke. EAF, on the other hand, use electricity to “arc” an electric current through pieces of scrap metal, melting them down and then using them to cast new products. Why is this distinction so important, you might ask? Besides the recyclable nature of EAF furnaces, Sebastian rationalized that they also use 75% less energy to operate than BOF furnaces.

            The energy and steel story doesn’t stop at production. Sebastian explained the importance of innovating new steel products in order to make cars run more efficiently and buildings to be made stronger and more sustainably, therefore impacting the energy footprint of the steel industry.

Sebastian illuminated the consequences her and her colleagues fret over when producing a new steel product, including the potential for ozone depletion, the smog potential, and, most importantly, the potential the product will have to impact global warming.

Our guest from the Steel Recycling Institute wrapped up her presentation by providing foresight into the future of the steel industry. Sebastian revealed to us a startling statistic: 75% of all steel products ever made are still in use today. Although that is fascinating, one must stop and ponder the consequences of having the same technology and materials in circulation since the industry’s founding. Sebastian explains that with the current technology we have, scientists are nearly breaking the laws of physics with how efficiently they are running. As can be expected, the industry, and Sebastian, is not satisfied. She retorts, arguing the need for “breakthrough” technologies and novel processing techniques.

No matter what, Sebastian explains, steel producers and energy scientists alike must always keep the life cycle in mind. It is just as important as where the product came from or where it will go after as it is during its life use. Through that, we will be able to make a truly sustainable world.

Brandie Sebastian, LCACP, is Manager of Life Cycle Assessment at the Steel Recycling Institute located in Pittsburgh, PA. Brandie is a certified LCA practitioner through the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA). She serves as the Vice Chair/Secretary of the ACLCA Board and is a member of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to the ISO standards on LCA. Prior to joining SRI in June 2013, Brandie spent over six years in environmental and sustainability consulting. She holds a M.S. degree in Energy & Geo-Environmental Engineering and a B.S. in Environmental Systems Engineering from Penn State University.