In pursuit of lunar oxygen, firm discovers recipe for net-zero steel

A novel solution sees carbon replaced by sodium during steel manufacture.
Sade Agard
Decarbonizing steel, how will it be done?
Decarbonizing steel, how will it be done?


An Israeli company working on manufacturing oxygen on the moon for future colonization has hit on a recipe that could significantly lower carbon dioxide emissions and expenses for the steel industry.

Producing iron, naturally present in the Earth as iron oxides, is the first step in manufacturing steel. Conventionally, coal and iron oxides are combined in scorching blast furnaces to bond oxygen molecules with carbon molecules. During this process, the bioproduct is carbon dioxide (CO2), which we all know to be a significant greenhouse gas.

Using sodium- not carbon- in the steel business

Helios has found that sodium, used to manufacture table salt, may be utilized in place of carbon-rich coal.

They assert that sodium oxide is created when sodium molecules interact with the oxygen molecules in iron ore. The oxygen is then released into the atmosphere after being split again into sodium and oxygen. After that, the sodium can be reused.

The company's ongoing work on a lunar oxygen-producing reactor, which aims to separate oxygen from iron oxides found in lunar rock, gave rise to the idea of using sodium in the steel business.

According to Jonathan Geifman, co-founder and CEO of Helios, in an article by The Times of Isreal, unlike the conventional blast furnace approach, which required heating the mixture to more than 1,200 degrees Celsius, his sodium method only required 400 degrees Celsius.

Helios already has a benchtop system in its laboratory. Additionally, before the end of the year, Helios plans to install a prototype to replace the conventional blast furnace in at least one overseas steel production facility.

"We're talking to big steelmakers and will be setting up small demonstration models within their production chains that will use their existing energy infrastructure," he stated.

He further emphasized that by replacing carbon with sodium, his company's technology reduced direct carbon emissions during this part of the steel-making process to zero.

According to Geifman, it also reduced indirect emissions (from the coal or natural gas used to fire the furnaces) by 80–90 percent and energy consumption by 50 percent.

While the technology is still in the early stages of research, the CEO is confident that Helios' approach could reduce steel production costs by "tens of percentage points." 

Better yet, they've already tested the technology, which has proven successful with other metals such as copper and nickel.

How much CO2 does the steel industry emit?

The steel industry is accountable for about 7 percent of CO2 emissions globally. Its dependence on coal for the conversion of iron ore into its raw metallic form makes it incredibly challenging to decarbonize. It must create and market new low-CO2 technology within the next five to 10 years to meet the EU's climate targets.

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