Business Maverick


Go Sasol, science the shit out of it

Go Sasol, science the shit out of it
A sign at the ArcelorMittal Ostrava a.s plant. (Photo: Martin Divisek / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Sasol’s main plant in Secunda, Mpumalanga, South Africa. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

There is a great line in the movie The Martian. If you didn’t see it, astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, discovers to his surprise that he is alive after a storm hits his team’s base station on Mars. His colleagues think he is dead and leave in a rush in their spaceship, but miraculously his own blood seals his punctured space suit. Because, that’s likely. But you know … it’s a movie.

In any event, he records on the televised log that he is alive and that this is bound to be a surprise to his crewmates and the world. Also, he doesn’t blame his crew mates for leaving.

He then says the following: “That’s where we’re at. Mark Watney, stranded on Mars. I have no way to contact Nasa because our communications antenna broke and stuck into my stomach. Which we’ve covered. And even if I could, it will take four years before the next manned mission gets here. And I’m in a Hab designed to last 31 days.”

Then, later in the movie, in another dilemma about how to survive, he makes the following comment: “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” And of course he does, surviving four years on potatoes, which I think is perhaps unlikely. But we get the point. The movie is punctuated with great dialogue, as all Ridley Scott movies are, and a very distinctive message: we are going to have to science the shit out of this.

So, it was with a real sense of sublime pleasure that I read today about Sasol and ArcelorMittal SA’s plans to jointly develop carbon-capture technology to produce sustainable fuels and chemicals. They will also partner to use green hydrogen to manufacture steel. They will be doing it in conjunction with the Saldanha IDZ.

At last! Some really good news. And that is something we all need.

This is where we must go. All the pointers are exactly in the right direction. Instead of castigating and isolating our big carbon producers, we need to find a way to incentivise them to be carbon neutral and to make it worthwhile for them to do so.  

De-funding big carbon producers like Sasol and ArcelorMittal runs the risk of destroying the capacity we have without being able to fully substitute the products necessary for modern life. I just don’t think that’s a realistic course of action.

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So, the question now is, how realistic is this? It’s just an agreement to study the possibilities, not an actual commitment. But for lots of reasons, I think there are good omens here.

The first is about Sasol: in its best version of itself, Sasol is a fantastic example of grand engineering innovation. I think lots of that was lost in its attempt to go global with the Lake Charles Chemical Plant, which I suspect was simply an attempt to scale and use its proprietary know-how. It was a grab at power. As it happened, the great leap forward ended in disaster, with the company writing off huge debts, the share price being hammered, and the company forced ultimately to sell half of its stake in the plant.

But the idea of developing hydrogen in conjunction with Arcelor to make green steel is by no means unique in the world, and is not beyond the capacity of the science boffins that sit in the heart of Sasol. The idea to use renewable energy to generate hydrogen to make steel brings together new technologies and some pretty old ones.

The hydrogen economy has been one of the most disappointing of all the new energy thrusts – but yet, times are changing. The essential potential is just glaring. Hydrogen is the most abundant element on earth and the process of utilising its energy is non-toxic.

The essential problem with hydrogen is also clear: hydrogen does not exist in natural form, so it needs to be created. The most obvious way to do that, which we all remember from our science class, is to use electrolysis to split hydrogen from oxygen in water. The problem is that to do so is expensive and energy inefficient and mostly produced currently with carbon-based energy, creating something called grey hydrogen.

The expense of it all is downright frightening. Green hydrogen currently costs about $4/kilogram to make; it’s only realistically commercially viable for most industrial uses at around $1/kg. Grey hydrogen currently costs about $1.50. That means chopping off three-quarters of the cost – and that is no easy task.

Energy inefficiency is also a stumbling block, because if you are using electricity to create hydrogen, why not just use the electricity and pocket the savings? This is one of the reasons electric cars are now obliterating hydrogen fuel cell cars. They just make more sense.

But while 20 years ago hydrogen looked like an obvious choice – which was one of the reasons why Toyota, for one, started producing hydrogen fuel cell cars – the idea is making a comeback, as the Sasol-Arcelor deal implicitly suggests. For big industrial users in certain industries, particularly making steel and cement, hydrogen can be more efficient.

Sasol already produces about 2.5 million tonnes of grey hydrogen, so in some senses the market is already developed. The reduction in the price of producing renewable electricity has, as we all know, come down dramatically. Sasol will obviously be sensitive to the costs here, but nothing looks out of the realm of possibility.

They just have to science the shit out of it. BM/DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ross Norton says:

    Don’t forget the SASOL’s science can convert CO2 into jet fuel. It’s not economic yet but it is the only way to keep flying when all burning of coal, oil and gas is banned

  • virginia crawford says:

    “Science the s**t out of it” . Really? Is this the best sentence you can come up? I’m disappointed in DM for this kind of language: it doesn’t add anything to a good story.

  • Siobhan Hanvey says:

    Having read The Martian a number of times I agree that we do need to ‘science the s**t’ out of a lot of manufacturing processe in order to do things better / smarter – burning fossil fuels is not sustainable and I ‘get’ the reference – creating sustainable energy on our planet is a life or death situation. I trust that Sasol and AMSA are able to pull this off and I look forward to this kind of innovation in other areas.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    I agree with the line of argument of this article, as long as our long term goal is still to produce green hydrogen and to create a country-wide (and eventual continent-wide) infrastructure so cars & other vehicles that has to run long distances can be driven by fuel cells. It is the one aspect that can’t be effectively covered by battery power. And if green electricity is used for the electrolysis process, I don’t believe that it needs to be so expensive; we just need to have the resolve to make it work.

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