The groundbreaking climate action of Sweden’s century-old industry

This blog was contributed by BSc Economics student Linus Kask and was originally written as an assignment for the module Quantitative Techniques for Applied Economics.

In Viking mythology, Thor, the god of lightning, wore iron gloves to manage his famous hammer Mjolnir. Known as the guardian of humankind, Thor used his hammer and gloves to protect the world from giants. Now a new saviour of the world as we know it is lighting up in the land of the Vikings.

For over a thousand years in the northern parts of Sweden, blast furnaces have burnt coal to create iron for steel production. This technique is still standard practice today, thus making the steel industry one of the world’s greatest emitters of carbon dioxide. In a world that lusts for steel to expand economies and an industry sticking to its business-as-usual approach, its emissions are only set to rise. However, a group of businesses from north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden have now formed a vanguard and are looking to turn the industry status quo on its head.

In 2016, the Swedish state-owned mining company LKAB, the state-owned power company Vattenfall and the privately owned steel producer SSAB joined forces to start HYBRIT, Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology, an initiative to create zero-emission steel. In 2026, the first emission-free steel will be on the market and a full-scale operation is expected to be running by 2035. The common goal of all three companies is to be fully carbon neutral by 2045.

Today, coal is burnt in blast furnaces in order to reduce oxygen from iron ores and extract iron for steel production. HYBRIT aim to replace coal with hydrogen in this process, as when hydrogen reacts with the released oxygen, the only residue product remaining is water instead of carbon dioxide. Hydrogen is the most common element on earth but it is seldom found in its pure form in nature because it is so reactive. This means that it must be extracted from a composition of elements. The most common way is to separate hydrogen from carbon in natural gas, but the residue product then is carbon dioxide. Instead, HYBRIT use water, separating it into oxygen and hydrogen through electrolysis. This is an extremely electricity intense technique and will, when HYBRIT’s technology has reached its full potential, require 10% of Sweden’s current energy consumption. Due to the immense amount of electricity needed in the production of hydrogen, it is paramount that the power is not produced using fossil fuels. This is quite easy to achieve in Sweden, as the country’s energy mix consists of only 1% fossil fuels. In comparison, the rest of the world’s energy mix includes a staggering 65% fossil fuels.

Bar chart showing fossil fuel consumption in Sweden vs the rest of the world.Because of the vast amount of electricity needed to make this groundbreaking shift in the steel industry, the world’s energy mix must contain a greater proportion of renewables. This huge infrastructure investment will be justified by the fact that the steel industry is accountable for 7% of the world’s emissions, releasing more carbon dioxide than India alone, or Africa and South America combined. The development of the technology is not a small investment either, estimated to cost 15 billion Swedish kronas, 1.8 billon US dollars, per annum for the next 20 years. This expenditure is validated because HYBRIT will play a crucial role in reaching the goals set in the Paris Agreement for the whole world. In Sweden, HYBRIT’s new technology will be fundamental in achieving the country’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2045. The steel industry in Sweden today accounts for 10% of its emissions.

Graph showing the CO2 emissions of the steel industry.Booting the coal in steel production has its economic advantages as well. Carbon prices are set to rise, and McKinsey & Company, a consultancy, estimate that unless they reduce their carbon emissions, steel companies will risk 14% of their value as a result of this increase. With steel demand on a steady rise driven by increasing urbanisation and world population, the industry has a lot to gain by switching to hydrogen.

Line graph showing rising global steel demand.Time is of the essence. If the steel industry does not find an alternative route to production without coal, it could account for 25% of carbon emissions by 2050, thus crushing any possibility of keeping the global temperature within the goal of 1.5 ˚C above pre-industrial levels.

For the first time since the Viking ages, Thor’s iron gloves could be made using sustainable production. HYBRIT’s technology is the best promise available for emission-free steel and if they succeed, a supreme shift has occurred in this ancient practice. North of the Arctic Circle in Sweden, a status quo is about to be turned on its head.

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Educating the educators

What motivates a Maths teacher to return to life as a student? From reigniting a love of learning to getting their head around applied statistics, teachers Sebastian Bicen, Donato Schiavo and Leonard Pistol share their experience of going back to school.

Picture of Maths teacher Seb Bicen.

Graduate Diploma in Mathematics alumnus Sebastian Bicen teaches Maths and Further Maths in London.

The reputation for being one of the most difficult A-level subjects is something that Mathematics has found hard to shake. Yet with rising demand for STEM teachers, it’s increasingly common for educators to find themselves teaching Maths with no experience of further study in the subject.

That’s how Sebastian Bicen, a History graduate from Oxford University, found himself teaching Maths through the Teach First training programme in 2010. Indeed, it’s easy to assume that stress around subject knowledge was what prompted Sebastian’s return to further study.

“You might expect that I went back to university because someone told me I needed a Maths degree,” he explains, “but in reality, even people with Maths-related degrees often don’t want to teach A-Level or Further Maths. Instead, it was being back in the classroom and seeing my students’ passion for the subject that reignited my own love of Maths and my enthusiasm for learning.”

The buzz of the classroom is something fellow teacher Donato Schiavo, who completed his MSc Mathematics in 2013, can relate to: “I remember as a student I really enjoyed explaining concepts and helping my friends with their homework,” he explains, “that pleasure of helping others made me realise I could be a teacher myself.”

Looking for a study route that would complement his work, Sebastian enrolled onto Birkbeck’s Graduate Diploma in Mathematics on a part-time basis: “It’s quite rare for universities to offer something that bespoke, like a personal conversion course where I could jump in at my level and not repeat the concepts I already knew.” Sebastian managed to secure partial sponsorship from his employer and, as a union member, was eligible for a 10% fee discount from Birkbeck.

What’s the point?

While every Mathematics classroom has students who love the subject for its own sake, there are many more who need some convincing, as Maths and Further Maths teacher Leonard Pistol discovered: “A lot of my students were interested in studying Maths at university, but not in becoming Mathematicians. They wanted to know how Maths could be applied in other fields and I felt like I came a bit short in providing personal, real world experience.

“I thought MSc Mathematical Finance would be a really good application. When I was talking to my students about it, I was able to give them concrete applications of the use of statistics and probabilities. The more into the applications I got, the more interested I became and the easier it was to teach as a result.”

For Donato, who now teaches at an international school in Italy, deepening his understanding of Mathematical concepts was a way to engage students in the subject: “When I tell people that I’m a Maths teacher they always say ‘I was so bad at Maths’ – it’s rare to meet someone who enjoyed Maths as a student. I had some wonderful teachers who shaped my idea of what Mathematics can be – solving a problem and understanding the logic that underpins it.

“A lot of my students can’t see the point of studying Maths, so I try to bring in examples that are tangible, like developing passwords or working out the dimensions of a room. The course helped me bring fresh examples to the classroom and teach at a higher level.”

Back to school

So, how did it feel being on the other side of the desk?

“As teachers, we forget what it’s like to be a student,” Sebastian admits, “It was really humbling being in the same boat as my students and having to take my own advice on revising! I experienced first-hand what worked and which things I was telling my students to do that even I wasn’t doing in practice.”

Re-living the university experience also enabled Sebastian to prepare sixth form students for higher education: “I want to treat my year 12 and 13 students as maturely as possible, knowing that they will be going to university. Having access to online lectures and notes from Birkbeck was really reassuring and helped me stay organised, so now I do that for my students as well. I give them lecture notes just like I had to help them experience what university teaching is like. Recording my lessons has been the biggest transformation to my teaching and the response from students has been amazing.”

Leonard, too, found that heading back to university supported his role as a Year 13 tutor: “I had fresh experience of the academic environment, so could give my students up to date advice on lectures and what life would be like. Being able to advise students on what modules to take for their specific goals was really valuable. I was reminded of the expectations lecturers have of you: asking for help, making sure you see your lecturers often, and that’s linked very much to what it’s like to be a teacher.”

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Birkbeck welcomes Compass Scholars, 2020-2021

This year we welcomed 20 new scholars as part of the Compass Project, a scheme that helps refugees and asylum seekers access higher education in the UK. In this blog, Isabelle Habib, Senior Access Officer, Forced Migrants shares how the new students were introduced to Birkbeck and student life in London. 

Compass Scholars outside of the Malet Street building

Compass Scholars outside of the Malet Street building.

Over the summer, Compass said goodbye to its 2019-20 cohort of students, after what was a demanding but very successful year for the programme. Many of the students have now moved onto other opportunities within higher education or are embarking on work or volunteering placements. We are also pleased that a few of the students have been able to continue their studies at Birkbeck this term through the support of external sponsorship.

The Compass Project is now entering its fourth year at Birkbeck and we are delighted to welcome a new cohort of students this term, that’s 75 students and counting! After a rigorous application and selection process over the summer, the new scholars successfully enrolled and began their courses with us in October. They have already portrayed a great commitment to their studies by attending a variety of orientation activities. These activities have included a two-part induction on online learning where students were invited to participate in a mock seminar and an introduction to the wellbeing and disabilities services.

The scholars will be supported this year by the Compass Project team within the Access and Engagement Department and by academic mentors who were assigned to them in September. Mentors also participated in a start of term workshop that was coordinated by a compass alum, Michael, who delivered training on how to support students who come from forced migrant backgrounds during their studies. This workshop was very successful, and we are grateful to have students with such talent and commitment to compass amongst our alumni.

In addition to online activities, on the 9 October, the Compass Scholars were invited to visit the Birkbeck campus. During this visit, they were introduced to the facilities at Birkbeck and had the chance to meet one another as well as the Compass Coordinator, Isabelle, in person.

During the day, the students received a warm welcome address from Professor Stewart Motha, Dean of Law. Then they got the opportunity to get to know the Bloomsbury area a little better on a walking tour that was delivered by Dr Leslie Topp, Head of the Compass Steering Committee. They also heard from current Compass students about their experiences at Birkbeck. The students offered their top tips and guidance on settling in this term.

Overall, the day was a huge success and the students left feeling confident about beginning their studies and even more excited about embarking on this new journey with us. We wish them the very best of luck this year!!!

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“By the time I finished university, I had four years’ worth of tech experience.”

BSc Computing student Trixi reflects on how combining work with part-time study at Birkbeck helped her get ahead in the tech industry.

Trixi, BSc Computing student

Why did you decide to study BSc Computing?  

I have always enjoyed problem-solving and I was curious about programming. When I asked my developer friends what their day-to-day involved, it sounded like something I wanted to try, even though I did not consider myself a computer nerd.

Why did you choose Birkbeck? 

I didn’t want to give up working full-time and Birkbeck had the option of doing evening studies. This alone really helped me make the decision, but I’d also heard good things about Birkbeck.

What aspects of the course have you most enjoyed?  

I enjoyed the learning, meeting people of similar ages and interests and the challenging assignments. I learnt that I am able to do things I thought I couldn’t possibly do before.

How has studying at Birkbeck impacted your future career plans?

I was really keen to get into the tech world as soon as it was feasible and for my studies and work to relate and feed into each other. The kind of assignments we were given helped me interview for jobs and I got my first tech job after one year of studying.

By the time I finished university, I had four years’ worth of tech experience. It helped me understand what part of technology I enjoyed the most and it feels like there will always be a job for me.

What advice would you give to a student thinking of applying for this course?  

Just apply. Start the process. If you have already considered the idea at least twice there is a likelihood that in 3-5 years you will be thinking the same. If you start now you will thank yourself later.

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Working remotely: top tips on how to work or study from home productively

The last few months has forced many of us to change the way we work. To help with this transition, Jessica Brooke, Birkbeck’s Social Media Officer, shares her tips for staying motivated and healthy while working or studying from home.

Get dressed

First thing’s first, get dressed. Chilling in your PJ’s may seem appealing to begin with, but getting into normal work gear can get you in the right mindset and help to feel like the day has really started. Freelancer and working-from-home veteran Annie Ridout has commented on the benefits of getting dressed for the day:

“Psychologically, what you see when you look in the mirror matters. If you see someone dressed for success, in a considered outfit, this will inspire productivity. Conversely, if you see pyjamas or sweatpants, this might instil the notion that you aren’t ready to start work.”

Set up your workspace

Once you’re dressed and ready for the working day, make sure your workspace is up to scratch too! In Buffer’s 2019 ‘State of Remote Working’ study, they found that the biggest obstacle participants working from home struggled with was ‘unplugging after work’. Having a regular workspace can help to create boundaries between your home life and your work life.

Think about somewhere in your house where you are least likely to be distracted or interrupted, as well as somewhere you can move away from when you’re finished working for the day. Keep it green with flowers and plants. A study by Dr Craig Knight found that productivity was boosted across the board when mother nature was introduced to the workspace, so get those leafy greens involved! Check out our #Deskies awards over on Twitter for some workspace inspiration.

Recreate your usual schedule

Keeping your workday habits similar is another way to successfully adjust to working remotely. If you’re used to grabbing a coffee first thing, make your own from home at around the same time. This can help to maintain some sense of normalcy, as well as installing some structure in your day. Write to-do lists in the morning to make sure you stay focussed and cross them off when they’re done.

Of course, your overall schedule will be slightly different at home and you might find yourself working harder for longer without the distraction of other people, so it’s important to take regular breaks. The Pomodoro Technique is a method of time management that involves breaking up your day into 25-minute working slots, followed by five-minute breaks. This can help you stay productive and alert to your task, as well as making sure you get those all-important breaks in. Use this fun Tomato Timer to stick to the schedule!

Ask for support when you need it

This can mean from your supervisor, colleagues or classmates. Reaching out to others for support with your work or your studies is important and will help you to stay on task. This could even just mean scheduling in catchups or working on tasks together. Maintaining these relationships and seeing how others are doing will also help you to boost your mood and avoid feelings of isolation. Articulate Marketing have put together this great web page linking to a huge list of resources that can help you work effectively and collaborate with others from home.

Be grateful for the flexibility

Buffer’s 2019 survey also found that participants believed the biggest benefit to working from home was the flexible schedule. Embrace the time you’ve gained from the usual commute by taking walks, cooking wholesome lunches and keeping in touch with friends and family.

 

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