• (From left): Donald Sadoway and Antoine Allanore

    (From left): Donald Sadoway and Antoine Allanore

    Photo: M. Scott Brauer

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One order of steel; hold the greenhouse gases

(From left): Donald Sadoway and Antoine Allanore

Steelmaking, a major emitter of climate-altering gases, could be transformed by a new process developed at MIT.

Anyone who has seen pictures of the giant, red-hot cauldrons in which steel is made — fed by vast amounts of carbon, and belching flame and smoke — would not be surprised to learn that steelmaking is one of the world’s leading industrial sources of greenhouse gases. But remarkably, a new process developed by MIT researchers could change all that.

The new process even carries a couple of nice side benefits: The resulting steel should be of higher purity, and eventually, once the process is scaled up, cheaper. Donald Sadoway, the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT and senior author of a new paper describing the process, says this could be a significant “win, win, win” proposition.

The paper, co-authored by Antoine Allanore, the Thomas B. King Assistant Professor of Metallurgy at MIT, and former postdoc Lan Yin (now a postdoc at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), has just been published in the journal Nature.

Worldwide steel production currently totals about 1.5 billion tons per year. The prevailing process makes steel from iron ore — which is mostly iron oxide — by heating it with carbon; the process forms carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Production of a ton of steel generates almost two tons of CO2 emissions, according to steel industry figures, accounting for as much as 5 percent of the world’s total greenhouse-gas emissions.

The industry has met little success in its search for carbon-free methods of manufacturing steel. The idea for the new method, Sadoway says, arose when he received a grant from NASA to look for ways of producing oxygen on the moon — a key step toward future lunar bases.

Sadoway found that a process called molten oxide electrolysis could use iron oxide from the lunar soil to make oxygen in abundance, with no special chemistry. He tested the process using lunar-like soil from Meteor Crater in Arizona — which contains iron oxide from an asteroid impact thousands of years ago — finding that it produced steel as a byproduct.

Sadoway’s method used an iridium anode, but since iridium is expensive and supplies are limited, that’s not a viable approach for bulk steel production on Earth. But after more research and input from Allanore, the MIT team identified an inexpensive metal alloy that can replace the iridium anode in molten oxide electrolysis.

It wasn’t an easy problem to solve, Sadoway explains, because a vat of molten iron oxide, which must be kept at about 1600 degrees Celsius, “is a really challenging environment. The melt is extremely aggressive. Oxygen is quick to attack the metal.”

  • Antoine Allanore, left, and Donald Sadoway.

    Photo: M. Scott Brauer

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Many researchers had tried to use ceramics, but these are brittle and can shatter easily. “I had always eschewed that approach,” Sadoway says.

But Allanore adds, “There are only two classes of materials that can sustain these high temperatures — metals or ceramics.” Only a few metals remain solid at these high temperatures, so “that narrows the number of candidates,” he says.

Allanore, who worked in the steel industry before joining MIT, says progress has been slow both because experiments are difficult at these high temperatures, and also because the relevant expertise tends to be scattered across disciplines. “Electrochemistry is a multidisciplinary problem, involving chemical, electrical and materials engineering,” he says.

The problem was solved using an alloy that naturally forms a thin film of metallic oxide on its surface: thick enough to prevent further attack by oxygen, but thin enough for electric current to flow freely through it. The answer turned out to be an alloy of chromium and iron — constituents that are “abundant and cheap,” Sadoway says.

In addition to producing no emissions other than pure oxygen, the process lends itself to smaller-scale factories: Conventional steel plants are only economical if they can produce millions of tons of steel per year, but this new process could be viable for production of a few hundred thousand tons per year, he says.

Apart from eliminating the emissions, the process yields metal of exceptional purity, Sadoway says. What’s more, it could also be adapted to carbon-free production of metals and alloys including nickel, titanium and ferromanganese, with similar advantages.

Ken Mills, a visiting professor of materials at Imperial College, London, says the approach outlined in this paper “seems very sound to me,” but he cautions that unless legislation requires the industry to account for its greenhouse-gas production, it’s unclear whether the new technique would be cost-competitive. Nevertheless, he says, it “should be followed up, as the authors suggest, with experiments using a more industrial configuration.”

Sadoway, Allanore and a former student have formed a company to develop the concept, which is still at the laboratory scale, to a commercially viable prototype electrolysis cell. They expect it could take about three years to design, build and test such a reactor.

The research was supported by the American Iron and Steel Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Topics: Climate change, Energy, Faculty, Greenhouse gases, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E), Manufacturing, Materials Science and Engineering, Students, Materials Chemistry


The remaining question is where the electricity for the electrolysis is coming from - coal or solar? Also, at industrial scale how will the iron ore be purified to avoid contamination of the electrolyte; for aluminum we have the Bayer process ...

I agree that there are additional upstream and downstream questions to be answered. I think that this is, a brilliant, huge first step in the direct chemistry of manufacturing metal processes. There are regional programs that include air scrubbing and expensive processes to reduce emissions. Globally there is a large problem with available, enforceable, regulation. In addition there is often little concern about green house gas issues in many economic regions due to local stresses. Areas where people really have little power to effect change in an environment, that is being polluted, must rely on the developed trading partners to provide solutions for their regions that are palatable.

Cheap solutions are the essential part of cleaning up our industry worldwide. I feel that this is a grand beginning provided the technology continues to be inexpensive region to region. Cheers.

The efforts are commendable !!

I would like to know - Is synthetic fuels or synfuels not the better solution for keeping a hold on greenhouse gases during production of steel.

Instead of burning coal directly as a fuel, gasification can be done - which is a thermo-chemical process that involves transforming the carbon into gaseous compounds. The coal gases are then fired in a gas turbine, much like natural gas, to provide one source of power.

C + O2 = CO2

12 tons of carbon, even if they're in a gas (CH4?) combine with 32 tons of oxygen to generate 44 tons of CO2. You can get hydrogen from water by

C + 2H2O = 2 H2 + CO2, and perhaps it's possible to do something like

2C + 2H2O = CH4 + CO2 ,

But you end up with just as much greenhouse gases, provided the CH4 doesn't leak out. Its many times more of a GHG than CO2.

Either the IFR process abandoned by the Clinton administration, or the LFTR that Nixon dropped, is the soource of the clean energy to provide the high temperatures and the electrolysis. Both designs breed fissile fuel from plentiful non-fissile inputs. Neither produces long-lived waste, nor do they melt down.

The LFTR was dropped because it's not much good for making bombs, and the IFR because it makes plutonium, which might be used to make bombs, although it creates no plutonium residue, and the plutonium in the fuel rods is quite highly contaminated with bomb-poisoning Pu-239.

Steel is an alloy of carbon and iron. Where does the carbon (previously supplied by coke and or injected pulverized coal) come in?

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