It has been reported this week that material chemists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been working on a method of steel production which will cut the amount of carbon dioxide released during the process – potentially eliminating one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse gasses.
The process of steel production – from extracting iron ore to actually smelting the steel – accounts for more than 3% of carbon dioxide emissions globally according to some experts’ estimations. For every tonne of steel produced, almost two tonnes of carbon dioxide are released. When we are reporting on global steel production in the billions of tonnes, that is a significant amount of greenhouse gasses coming from one global industry.
Surprisingly, the new method of steel production developed by Antoine Allanore, Lana Yin and Donald Sadoway at MIT was born out of research into the possibility of lunar bases. The team of chemists were tasked by NASA to develop a way to produce oxygen inexpensively on the Moon as part of the research into establishing a permanent lunar base.
The surface of the Moon is covered in iron oxide-rich dust, and a part of the scientists’ research was a process called molten oxide electrolysis. This process electrolyses molten iron ore into its component elements, making it possible to extract oxygen from the Moon dust. Steel is then produced as a byproduct.
The real breakthrough is that the team have found a way to make this process economical on Earth, using an alloy of chromium and iron as an anode instead of extremely expensive iridium. This alloy oxidises when exposed to air, protecting it from breaking down through corrosion and allowing a current to pass through it for electrolysis to occur.
Whilst this new process is exciting news for the steel industry, the economic advantages have yet to be explored on the scale at which a factory produces steel to be considered profitable. Currently it is claimed that the process would make economic sense when producing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of steel per year, but they have yet to present evidence to back up this claim.
We will be watching for more news on these developments as they are published.