ARPA-E, and Emission-Free Metal…

Australian metals mining wastes (top) and the metal hyperaccumulator plants Alyssum murale and Berkheya coddii (bottom). The former plant can take up 1–3% of its weight in nickel. It has demonstrated yields of up to 400 kg of nickel per hectare annually, worth around $7000 at current prices, excluding processing and production costs. (Images adapted from A. van der Ent, A. Parbhakar-Fox, P. D. Erskine, Sci. Total Environ. 758, 143673, 2021, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.143673.)

Topics: Climate Change, Green Tech, Materials Science, Research

When it comes to making steel greener, “only the laws of physics limit our imagination,” says Christina Chang of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA–E). Chang, an ARPA–E fellow, is seeking public input on a potential new agency program titled Steel Made via Emissions-Less Technologies. During her two-year tenure, she will guide program creation, agency strategy, and outreach. Steelmaking currently accounts for about 7% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, and demand for steel is expected to double by 2050 as low-income countries’ economies grow, according to the International Energy Agency.

Founded in 2009, ARPA–E is a tiny, imaginative office within the Department of Energy. SMELT is one part of a three-pronged thrust by ARPA–E to green up processes involved in producing steel and nonferrous metals, from the mine through to the finished products. Another program seeks ways to make use of the vast volumes of wastes that accumulate from mining operations around the globe—and reduce the amounts generated in the future. The agency is also exploring the feasibility of deploying plants that suck up from soils elements such as cobalt, nickel, and rare earths. Despite being essential ingredients in electric vehicles, batteries, and wind turbines, the US has little or no domestic production of them. (See Physics TodayFebruary 2021, page 20.)

Steelmaking

The first step in steelmaking is separating iron ore into oxygen and iron metal, which produces CO2 through both the reduction process and the fossil-fuel burning necessary to create high heat. An ARPA–E solicitation for ideas to clean up that process closed on 14 June. The agency is looking to replace the centuries-old blast furnace with greener technology that can work at the scale of 2 gigatons of steel production annually. It may or may not follow up with a request for research proposals to fund.

ARPA–E explores paths to emissions-free metal making, Physics Today

Published by reginaldgoodwin

Engineering Physics, Bachelors of Science, December 1984 Microelectronics & Photonics, Graduate Certificate, February 2016 Nanoengineering, Masters, December 2019 Nanoengineering, Ph.D., December 2021

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