Post No. 4, Clean Steel
We talked about the problems with Portland cement in the third Topics entry: it is not durable, it and steel reinforcing destroy each other, and if we rebuild our crumbling infrastructure with it, it will crumble again in another 50 years or so. And it is already 8 percent of climate change. If we rebuild, and the developing world modernizes, with OPC, we will kick the methane excursion that has already begun into high gear, and we can kiss modern civilization, 6 or 7 billion human beings, and a few million innocent species goodbye.
Geopolymer cements, some of which actually sequester carbon, will last far longer and cost less, anyway.
But if OPC is 8 (ish) percent of climate change, the steel industry is 9 percent, according to MIT materials science prof Donald Sadoway. If we rebuild with OPC and reinforce it with steel, that industry, too, will grow exponentially, as will its contribution to climate change.
Sadoway, Antoine Allanore and the rest of their team at MIT are masters at creating new clean tech and spinning off new business to develop them. Working to develop molten metal batteries for electrical grid storage, and (for NASA) a way to extract oxygen for astronauts/colonists on the moon, they developed a related technology, a new way of smelting steel. “Molten oxide electrolysis” produces little “waste” from the reduction of iron oxide besides pure, clean oxygen. It uses no coke, no coal, and produces no CO2. Boston Metal, the spinoff developing “MOE,” claims they can get useful grades of steel, including stainless, right out of the smelter; current steelmaking requires a “second heat” (at least) in an electric arc furnace to clean up the pig iron that comes out of the smelter, and add carbon and metals to alloy it. So MOE should be more energy efficient—20 percent, Sadoway said, in one lecture. And it's as clean as the source of electricity.
MOE scales up/down well, and it’s less expensive tech to begin with than current steelmaking technology. Lending the American steel industry the money to adopt this new generation clean tech would make it competitive in the world again, without tariffs and the ill-will and retaliation by trading partners that comes with them. We need to bring it on line before we rebuild the infrastructure, or again, we will needlessly make climate change worse. And I am desperate for the right electric vehicle, but I want it made of clean steel.
SO DO a lot of Scandinavian and German automakers and customers. A consortium including Swedish steelmaker SSAB, mining company LKAB, and energy supplier Vattenfall, are collaborating to bring Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology on line asap. “HYBRIT” tech starts by electrolyzing water for clean hydrogen. It then combines the hydrogen, under high heat, with iron ore (iron oxide), to extract the oxygen and combine with it to make water again. The water steams off, and you’re left with “sponge” iron, which needs a trip through an electric arc furnace to refine and alloy it. So while HYBRIT tech is “fossil free,” it does take around 20 percent more energy than current steelmaking. That energy can be—will be, in this instance*--clean, renewable electricity. They’ve made test batches that have been made into vehicles and mining equipment, and Mercedes, Volvo, and Cargotec, among others, are lining up to buy clean steel. SSAB hopes to be making carbon-free steel in volume by 2026, and be entirely carbon free by 2045.
Why so long?
A private Swedish company, H2 Green Steel, is building its own mill to use the same DRI, direct reduction of iron, tech. They hope to be making clean steel by 2024, and making 5 million tons per year by 2030. Their waste heat will warm nearby homes, and General Fusion is apparently going to build them a “Gobsmacker” magnetic target fusion reactor—GF is building a test reactor in England right now—to power the whole thing. If small modular fission reactors, in particular waste-burning molten-salt “fast” (neutron) reactors, or GF Gobsmackers, or Lawrenceville Plasma Physics dense plasma focus fusion reactors, come in anywhere near the prices projected, steel mills, automakers and large manufacturing plants could have their own clean, safe, reliable power sources independent of the grid, or supplemental to the grid, which would bring clean electricity on line faster.
And we’re talking steel, but this is related: Making aluminum is already essentially molten oxide electrolysis, in that electricity, not heat derived from fossil fuels, reduces aluminum oxide to aluminum. But the electrodes used are graphite, and sacrificial; they are designed to burn into CO2 bonding with the oxygen they steal from the aluminum oxide, so that the aluminum industry contributes approximately as much to climate change as the airline industry. Alcoa, Rio Tinto, and the government of Canada are cooperating to develop titanium-based electrodes (and new electrolytes?) that will release only oxygen: electrolysis, not reduction and combustion.
Something concerns me in all of this that I haven’t heard elsewhere. The atmosphere is currently about 20.9 percent oxygen; just 23 percent would generate more and hotter wildfires. That might take a while, but we need to be thinking about this. Oxygen is very useful: I haven’t found production figures yet, but the global market was worth $26.15 billion in 2020, and is projected to grow to $37.29 billion in 2025. It is usually produced by cryogenic distillation, an energy-intensive process, so extracting it as a byproduct of metals production (molten oxide electrolysis should work with all metal oxides) would save that energy and money. But producing hydrogen with electrolysis will also liberate oxygen. I don’t think we could use all of it those industries would generate. Dissolving it into the oceans would fertilize those patches; it might make them better places to grow seafood, or it might make them produce toxic algal blooms. The people with the right expertise need to be thinking about this.
*This is happening, as I grok the situation, because the Swedish (and Finnish) governments own slices of these corporations, and so have people on their boards of directors. This helps make Sweden’s commitment to fight climate change a priority for its industry, not just its government. It is government input, not government control, and it is making good things happen in these democratic socialist countries.