The steel industry emits 3 billion tons of CO2 every year. That’s about three times the carbon footprint of the airline industry. A startup called Helios wants to cut this industrial behemoth’s impact on the environment.
A cheaper steelmaking process
When it comes to steel, its large carbon footprint isn’t just the result of energy use, but also from the production process itself: It often involves burning iron ore together with a form of coal in a giant furnace, catalyzing a chemical reaction that emits CO2. Helios’ process aims to slash those emissions by providing a more affordable production approach.
“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,” says co-founder Jonathan Geifman.
“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.” The new process doesn’t just remove direct CO2 emissions from the process but also cuts energy costs in half, enabling steel producers to save money.
A byproduct of generating oxygen on the moon
The company discovered the new production technique as they were trying to figure out how to produce oxygen on the moon — Geifman’s initial focus. While creating the technique to generate oxygen out of regolith (the moon’s rocky surface), they realized that the process wasn’t just creating oxygen but also a significant amount of iron.
“We got 10 times more than we’d calculated,” says Geifman. “That was repeated time after time. We realized that we had an additional process that is going on inside the reactor beyond just our process… I think we disassembled and reassembled the furnace 20 times to try and understand what was going on.” Soon after, the company realized they had invented a new way to produce the iron.
The most important part is that the novel process can take place inside a direct reduction iron (DRI) furnace. Many steelmakers already have this type of equipment within their factories. It not only eliminates direct emissions but also uses half the energy of the traditional process — significantly cutting associated emissions. Hook it to a renewable energy source and you’ve got yourself a zero-carbon steel production process.
Since energy costs are the biggest expense for steel makers, the new energy-saving approach shouldn’t need too much convincing to get producers to adopt it. This could be a serious game-changer for the industry as it seeks to rapidly decarbonize its operations.
After recently obtaining a new round of seed funding, the startup is now building pilot plants to demonstrate its novel technology on a larger scale. Geifman believes change within the industry could happen fast because it’s relatively concentrated in the hands of a few giant companies: “If you work with the 10 or 20 biggest producers in the world, that’s a major chunk of the global production.”