To the moon and back: How a space tech company found a way to make green steel on Earth


Molten steel pouring from a furnace into a containment vessel. Image Credit: Six
Image Credit: Wix

Jonathan Geifman, co-founder of the space tech startup Helios, didn’t intend to enter the race to produce green steel.


Initially, his team was working to figure out a way to produce oxygen on the moon — essential for the race to space — when they stumbled upon a new solution for one of the biggest climate polluters on the planet: the steel industry.


The world is built with steel.


One of the most popular industrial materials on Earth, more than 2 billion tons of steel are produced annually. However, as one of the largest industrial sources of atmospheric pollution, steelmaking accounts for 7 to 11 percent of global greenhouse emissions, or rather, 3 billion tons of CO2 a year. That is 3 times as much as the entire airline industry. However, that emittance isn’t just from energy use.


The majority of carbon dioxide emissions in this industry come from the way steel is made. The first step of steelmaking typically involves combining a form of coal with iron ore in a giant blast furnace, and as it burns, the chemical reaction makes CO2. Additionally, fossil fuels are typically burned to heat the blast furnace and to power plants. 70 percent of the world’s steel is made with this method, an approach that has been in place since it was developed in the 1850s.


Now, to keep global warming under the 1.5 degrees Celcius mark, emissions from steel and other heavy metal companies must fall by 93 percent by 2050, according to estimates by the International Energy Agency.


The remaining 30 percent of the world’s steel is made utilizing furnaces that use an electric current to melt steel, usually recycled scrap. This method has far lower C02 emissions than blast furnaces. However, because steel is mostly used for long-term applications such as buildings and bridges, the recycled supply is limited. There isn’t enough to meet demand.


So


to truly decarbonize the industry, there has to be a fundamental change in the way in which steel is made.


Facing pressure from governments and investors to reduce emissions, steel companies are racing to figure out ways to produce green steel. The industry has been experimenting with many alternatives, one of which is using green hydrogen.


The Swedish company Hybrit — a joint venture between the steelmaker SSAB, the energy supplier Vattenfall, and LKAB, an iron ore producer — is piloting a process that aims to replace the method of fossil fuel oxygen extraction with a fossil-free hydrogen gas created through electrolysis, a technique that uses an electric current. According to Undark, Hybrit developed its first batch of fossil-free steel for the automaker Volvo last August.


Electricity has also been employed in other steps of the steelmaking process to reduce emissions, such as reducing iron ore, as developed by Boston Metal.


Similar to Hybrit, H2 Green Steel, another Swedish venture, is developing a commercial-scale hydrogen steel plant with the help of $105 million raised from private investors and companies including Mercedes-Benz, Scania, and IMAS Foundation, an organization linked to Ikea. As reported by Undark, the company has plans to begin production by 2024 and produce 5 million tons of zero-emissions steel annually by the end of the decade.


However, critiques of the green hydrogen methods are that they are expensive and likely to grow slowly, as reported by in Fast Company.


“If you actually want to incentivize the industry to reduce its emissions—and not to do it by 2050, but to do it in the coming 10 years—in our opinion, the only way to do it is by coming up with a solution that will reduce their opex, their production costs,” Jonathan Geifman, co-founder of Helios told Fast Company. “We completely disregard carbon credits on purpose: We want to show that this process is more efficient at its core. We don’t want to rely on subsidies or taxes in order to make this technology work.”


Helios, based in Israel, discovered the new method while developing an approach to generate oxygen from regolith, the rocky covering on the moon. They were focused on developing this approach because the expense of transporting oxygen to the moon from Earth is one of the biggest challenges to moon landing.


On Earth, the simplest way to separate oxygen from iron oxide is to use carbon, which creates vast pollution. However, because there’s little carbon on the moon, the team “needed to throw everything out and come up with a completely new concept,” Geifman said.


For proprietary reasons, the startup declined to describe the details of the chemical process that happens in its new reactor to, however, at its core, the approach substitutes another material for carbon. As they began testing it to produce oxygen, Geifman and his team realized that they were also producing a lot of iron: 10 times more than they originally estimated. Another process was going on inside the reactor.


“I think we disassembled and reassembled the furnace 20 times to try and understand what was going on,” Geifman told Fast Company.

After realizing their approach was an efficient way to produce iron, they reached out to experts in the steel industry. To their surprise, their technique was completely novel. It eliminates direct emissions, uses half of the energy of the typical burning process, and significantly cuts fossil fuel emissions used in the equipment.


Less expensive than green hydrogen methods, the process developed by Helios can happen inside a direct reduction iron (DRI) furnace, a type of equipment that many steelmakers already have. As reported by Fast Company, if the equipment is converted to use clean energy, emissions can drop to zero. While using hydrogen in steel can’t completely eliminate emissions, it reduces them by as much as 90%. Thus, despite its exorbitance, it can still be helpful.


Like the hydrogen-approach Swedish companies, Helios plans to demonstrate its technology at a larger scale and begin building pilot plants. Their funding comes from At One Ventures, a VC firm founded by former Google X leader Tom Chi. Simultaneously, they are preparing the tech to be used in lunar missions over the next two years, and are preparing to work with some of the biggest steel producers in the world.


Steel is one of the most important and challenging industries to decarbonize. The world may be built by steel, but increasingly, companies are showing that it doesn’t have to run on carbon.



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