Moving past the Iron Age

April 17, 2024

But in the past year, she’s become more familiar with steel production than she ever imagined. The steel industry is among the three biggest producers of CO 2 worldwide. “I optimize steel production pathways using emission goals, industry commitments, and cost,” she says. The steel industry, Johnson acknowledges, is not what she first imagined when she saw herself working toward mitigating climate change. Steel is made from iron ore, a mixture of iron, oxygen, and other minerals found on virtually every continent, with Brazil and Australia alone exporting millions of metric tons per year.

MIT graduate student Sydney Rose Johnson has never seen the steel mills in central India. She’s never toured the American Midwest’s hulking steel plants or the mini mills dotting the Mississippi River. But in the past year, she’s become more familiar with steel production than she ever imagined.

A fourth-year dual degree MBA and PhD candidate in chemical engineering and a graduate research assistant with the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) as well as a 2022-23 Shell Energy Fellow, Johnson looks at ways to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated by industrial processes in hard-to-abate industries. Those include steel.

Almost every aspect of infrastructure and transportation — buildings, bridges, cars, trains, mass transit — contains steel. The manufacture of steel hasn’t changed much since the Iron Age, with some steel plants in the United States and India operating almost continually for more than a century, their massive blast furnaces re-lined periodically with carbon and graphite to keep them going.

According to the World Economic Forum, steel demand is projected to increase 30 percent by 2050, spurred in part by population growth and economic development in China, India, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

The steel industry is among the three biggest producers of CO2 worldwide. Every ton of steel produced in 2020 emitted, on average, 1.89 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere — around 8 percent of global CO2 emissions, according to the World Steel Association.

A combination of technical strategies and financial investments, Johnson notes, will be needed to wrestle that 8 percent figure down to something more planet-friendly.

Johnson’s thesis focuses on modeling and analyzing ways to decarbonize steel. Using data mined from academic and industry sources, she builds models to calculate emissions, costs, and energy consumption for plant-level production.

“I optimize steel production pathways using emission goals, industry commitments, and cost,” she says. Based on the projected growth of India’s steel industry, she applies this approach to case studies that predict outcomes for some of the country’s thousand-plus factories, which together have a production capacity of 154 million metric tons of steel. For the United States, she looks at the effect of Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) credits. The 2022 IRA provides incentives that could accelerate the steel industry’s efforts to minimize its carbon emissions.

Johnson compares emissions and costs across different production pathways, asking questions such as: “If we start today, what would a cost-optimal production scenario look like years from now? How would it change if we added in credits? What would have to happen to cut 2005 levels of emissions in half by 2030?”

“My goal is to gain an understanding of how current and emerging decarbonization strategies will be integrated into the industry,” Johnson says.

Grappling with industrial problems

Growing up in Marietta, Georgia, outside Atlanta, the closest she ever came to a plant of any kind was through her father, a chemical engineer working in logistics and procuring steel for an aerospace company, and during high school, when she spent a semester working alongside chemical engineers tweaking the pH of an anti-foaming agent.

At Kennesaw Mountain High School, a STEM magnet program in Cobb County, students devote an entire semester of their senior year to an internship and research project.

Johnson chose to work at Kemira Chemicals, which develops chemical solutions for water-intensive industries with a focus on pulp and paper, water treatment, and energy systems.

“My goal was to understand why a polymer product was falling out of suspension — essentially, why it was less stable,” she recalls. She learned how to formulate a lab-scale version of the product and conduct tests to measure its viscosity and acidity. Comparing the lab-scale and regular product results revealed that acidity was an important factor. “Through conversations with my mentor, I learned this was connected with the holding conditions, which led to the product being oxidized,” she says. With the anti-foaming agent’s problem identified, steps could be taken to fix it.

“I learned how to apply problem-solving. I got to learn more about working in an industrial environment by connecting with the team in quality control as well as with R&D and chemical engineers at the plant site,” Johnson says. “This experience confirmed I wanted to pursue engineering in college.”

As an undergraduate at Stanford University, she learned about the different fields — biotechnology, environmental science, electrochemistry, and energy, among others — open to chemical engineers. “It seemed like a very diverse field and application range,” she says. “I was just so intrigued by the different things I saw people doing and all these different sets of issues.”

Turning up the heat

At MIT, she turned her attention to how certain industries can offset their detrimental effects on climate.

“I’m interested in the impact of technology on global communities, the environment, and policy. Energy applications affect every field. My goal as a chemical engineer is to have a broad perspective on problem-solving and to find solutions that benefit as many people, especially those under-resourced, as possible,” says Johnson, who has served on the MIT Chemical Engineering Graduate Student Advisory Board, the MIT Energy and Climate Club, and is involved with diversity and inclusion initiatives.

The steel industry, Johnson acknowledges, is not what she first imagined when she saw herself working toward mitigating climate change.

“But now, understanding the role the material has in infrastructure development, combined with its heavy use of coal, has illuminated how the sector, along with other hard-to-abate industries, is important in the climate change conversation,” Johnson says.

Despite the advanced age of many steel mills, some are quite energy-efficient, she notes. Yet these operations, which produce heat upwards of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, are still emission-intensive.

Steel is made from iron ore, a mixture of iron, oxygen, and other minerals found on virtually every continent, with Brazil and Australia alone exporting millions of metric tons per year. Commonly based on a process dating back to the 19th century, iron is extracted from the ore through smelting — heating the ore with blast furnaces until the metal becomes spongy and its chemical components begin to break down.

A reducing agent is needed to release the oxygen trapped in the ore, transforming it from its raw form to pure iron. That’s where most emissions come from, Johnson notes.

“We want to reduce emissions, and we want to make a cleaner and safer environment for everyone,” she says. “It’s not just the CO2 emissions. It’s also sometimes NOx and SOx [nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides] and air pollution particulate matter at some of these production facilities that can affect people as well.”

In 2020, the International Energy Agency released a roadmap exploring potential technologies and strategies that would make the iron and steel sector more compatible with the agency’s vision of increased sustainability. Emission reductions can be accomplished with more modern technology, the agency suggests, or by substituting the fuels producing the immense heat needed to process ore. Traditionally, the fuels used for iron reduction have been coal and natural gas. Alternative fuels include clean hydrogen, electricity, and biomass.

Using the MITEI Sustainable Energy System Analysis Modeling Environment (SESAME), Johnson analyzes various decarbonization strategies. She considers options such as switching fuel for furnaces to hydrogen with a little bit of natural gas or adding carbon-capture devices. The models demonstrate how effective these tactics are likely to be. The answers aren’t always encouraging.

“Upstream emissions can determine how effective the strategies are,” Johnson says. Charcoal derived from forestry biomass seemed to be a promising alternative fuel, but her models showed that processing the charcoal for use in the blast furnace limited its effectiveness in negating emissions.

Despite the challenges, “there are definitely ways of moving forward,” Johnson says. “It’s been an intriguing journey in terms of understanding where the industry is at. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s doable.”

Johnson is heartened by the steel industry’s efforts to recycle scrap into new steel products and incorporate more emission-friendly technologies and practices, some of which result in significantly lower CO2 emissions than conventional production.

A major issue is that low-carbon steel can be more than 50 percent more costly than conventionally produced steel. “There are costs associated with making the transition, but in the context of the environmental implications, I think it’s well worth it to adopt these technologies,” she says.

After graduation, Johnson plans to continue to work in the energy field. “I definitely want to use a combination of engineering knowledge and business knowledge to work toward mitigating climate change, potentially in the startup space with clean technology or even in a policy context,” she says. “I’m interested in connecting the private and public sectors to implement measures for improving our environment and benefiting as many people as possible.”

The source of this news is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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