After thousands of years, including two centuries of industrialization, steelmaking methods are reaching their physical limits. A group of scientists suggests a cheaper, cleaner alternative using electrolysis.
A team of materials chemists at MIT have found an effective and relatively affordable way to use electrolysis to extract iron from ore, which could lead to cleaner and cheaper methods of steelmaking. The process itself — which involves passing current through a 1600-degree-Celsius mixture of liquid ore and electrolyte, resulting in iron and oxygen — requires an anode that won’t degrade in such high temperatures. Team leader Donald Sadoway says that chromium alloys create anodes that can stand up to the heat and are much less expensive than those made with elements like iridium and platinum.
What’s the Big Idea?
Over thousands of years, and especially during the Industrial Revolution, the development of steel contributed mightily to the rise of civilizations. However, entering the 21st Century, traditional methods of production are too energy-intensive and produce unacceptable levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Switching to a new method on a large scale requires several major adjustments, not the least of which is the redesign of both steel mills and the minds of those in the industry. Sadoway acknowledges that it will be a hard slog: “People who want instant gratification, they don’t work in this area.”