Argonne's Revolutionary Approach to Zero-Carbon Ironmaking Technology

New funding is part of Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy Program to develop new technologies for making iron and steel with ultra-low carbon emission.

Iron and steel production are among the most challenging sectors to decarbonize in the industrial sector. They are currently responsible for 11% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy recently announced $28 million in funding under the Revolutionizing Ore to Steel to Impact Emissions program. The DOE's Argonne National Laboratory will be receiving $3 million over three years in one of the 13 new projects for this program. Argonne's partners include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Purdue University Northwest, Starfire Industries and ArcelorMittal.

"Our project aims to develop a technology for ironmaking with zero carbon emissions," said Argonne chemist John Kopasz.

As part of the typical steelmaking process today, blast furnaces reduce iron ore to iron in a reaction of iron ore with coke and limestone at very high temperatures, about 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. This production via blast furnaces accounts for about 70% of CO2 emissions from steel production.

The team's alternative is a microwave-powered hydrogen plasma in a rotary kiln furnace. The hydrogen plasma allows this reduction to take place at much lower temperatures, under 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit. The microwave power permits tuning of the plasma properties for efficient energy usage. Typically used in cement production, the rotary kiln furnace eliminates the need for heating the iron ore and forming pellets, also lowering the energy requirement. The culmination of these advances promises a 50% reduction in energy consumption compared with conventional blast furnaces.

The technology itself would have zero COemissions, but it would require electricity to operate. And the grid producing the electricity would be emitting CO2. However, even under current grid conditions, the team estimates a notable 35% reduction in CO2 emissions compared with conventional blast furnaces. This reduction could rise to an impressive 88% with the transition to a future low-carbon grid powered by renewable energy sources.

A project goal is to demonstrate ​"proof of concept" with an impure ore -; taconite -; at the bench scale, that is, 10 kilograms of iron produced in a day. Success would pave the way for securing funding for a pilot-scale demonstration, many times the bench-scale rate. Looking further ahead, the team will be modeling their technology's scalability to industrial production of over 15 million metric tons per year.

"Success with our project would mark a significant stride toward a greener future in America's industrial landscape," Kopasz said.

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