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METALS FORUM Steel is stepping up to the climate change challenge


Under the auspices of the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), the North American steel industry began 2008 with the launch of Phase II of its CO2 Breakthrough Program, a unique partnership with leading universities aimed at developing new ways of making steel while emitting little or no carbon dioxide. The program is focused on exploring carbon sequestration technology as well as alternative energy approaches.

Such new developments are required, since today's processes are mature and largely optimized concerning energy use. Steelmakers in the United States have reduced the energy required to produce one ton of steel by 29 percent since 1990, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent.

The CO2 Breakthrough Program is an international research program coordinated by the International Iron and Steel Institute (IISI). It involves separate research clusters around the world, which communicate progress through the IISI to help speed this long-term work to its earliest conclusion. The North American cluster is organized under the AISI.

It began with Phase I, a joint program under the Technology Roadmap Program for research and development between members of the AISI and the U.S. Energy Department. Phase I started with a workshop for steelmakers and leading scientists from around the world where a multitude of novel concepts were presented and evaluated. Four technologies were selected for detailed concept studies in Phase I.

The four universities participating in Phase I were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Utah, Columbia University and what was then known as the University of Missouri-Rolla, now the Missouri University of Science and Technology (MUST). The processes being tested are molten oxide electrolysis (MOE) at MIT; ironmaking by hydrogen flash smelting at the University of Utah; and carbon capture and sequestration methods at Columbia University and MUST.

Phase I's laboratory-scale experiments showed the molten oxide electrolysis (at MIT) and hydrogen flash smelting (at the University of Utah) processes to be technically viable, which was very encouraging news. In response to these results, steelmakers have moved forward in partnering with these two universities and embarked on Phase II, which involves building pilot-scale facilities of the two processes to develop scale-up parameters and assess their economic viability.

The MOE process, being tested under the leadership of Prof. Donald R. Sadoway at MIT's Department of Materials Science Engineering, works by passing an electric current through a liquid solution of iron oxide. The iron oxide then breaks down into liquid iron and oxygen gas, allowing oxygen to be the main by-product of the process. Since carbon is not used in the process of separating iron from iron oxides, no carbon dioxide is produced.

At the University of Utah, the process known as ironmaking by hydrogen flash smelting is being developed under the guidance of H.Y. "Rocky" Sohn. "Flash smelting" technology is adapted from mining processes and includes advances in furnace technology utilizing hydrogen. As is the case with MOE, carbon is not used as a fuel in the process; hence, no carbon dioxide is produced.

The pilot work is scheduled to take three years. If successful—for one or both of the technologies—a demonstration-scale project (Phase III) lasting four to five years would follow.

The projects at Columbia University and MUST, dealing with carbon capture and sequestration, are nearing the end of Phase I. The MUST work uses electric-arc furnace and basic oxygen furnace slags to sequester carbon dioxide and could possibly have near-term applications. The work at Columbia uses minerals with an affinity for carbon dioxide to accomplish sequestration and, if shown to be successful, could lead to collaboration with the mining industry. Later this year, steelmakers will evaluate the feasibility of these two projects and determine if their level of technical viability warrants continued work in Phase II.

These investments show the steel industry's commitment to a sustainable future. The results thus far are promising, even as we must recognize that this is long-range research and development that could fundamentally change the way steel is produced. With Congress and the country focused on the issue of climate change, steel is demonstrating that it will be part of the solution to this challenge.

This is true on many fronts. In the political arena, for instance, the AISI is an active participant in the steel task force of the Asia-Pacific Partnership, a seven-nation effort to work toward technology-based solutions for energy and carbon dioxide reductions through the identification of best energy and environmental practices and of commercially available and emerging equipment that can improve the environment.

We long ago recognized our responsibility to reduce emissions and energy intensity. We have done so—and we continue to do so—through our support for breakthrough technologies, which will provide the ultimate answer to the climate issue.

Louis L. Schorsch is chief executive officer of ArcelorMittal Flat Carbon Americas, Chicago. He is vice chairman and formerly chairman of the American Iron and Steel Institute.

Metal Forum appears monthly and is open to submissions from industry and trade associations wishing to address issues of concern to the metals community.

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