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MIT Professors Discover New, Environmentally-Friendly Method For Producing Steel

May 08, 2013 04:01 PM EDT

Steel production has long been a leader in the world’s industrial sources of greenhouse gases; however, a new discovery made by scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may change all that.

The study published, in the journal Nature, first began to form in the mind of lead author Donald Sadoway when he received a grant from NASA to examine possible ways of producing oxygen on the moon, according to an MIT press release.

Sure enough, Sadoway discovered that a process called molten oxide electrolysis could use iron oxide from the lunar soil to make oxygen in abundance, with no special chemistry.

Sadoway then tested the process using lunar-like soil from Meteor Crater in Arizona and, as an added bonus, found that it produced steel as a byproduct.

The trick, then, was replacing one of the method’s key ingredients, iridium anode, with something more inexpensive and scalable, but still able to withstand the extreme temperatures used in the process.

With help from his colleague Antoine Allanore, a professor of metallurgy at MIT, the two came up with a cheaper metal alloy of chromium and iron, both of which are, according to Sadoway, “abundant and cheap.”

Apart from eliminating emissions related to current methods of steel production, the researchers report that the inexpensive nature of the new process lends itself to the development of smaller-scale factories. Furthermore, the steel created through the new technique is of higher purity, according to Sadoway.

However, as Ken Mills, a visiting professor of materials at Imperial College, London, said, unless legislation requires the steel industry to account for its greenhouse-gas production, it’s unclear whether the discovery would ultimately prove to be cost-competitive.

Nevertheless, Mills said he believes the technique “should be followed up, as the authors suggest, with experiments using a more industrial configuration.”

According to MIT, the research was supported by the American Iron and Steel Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy.

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