When he founded startup Helios four years ago, Jonathan Ziffman’s focus was on space travel, not climate change. But as his team worked on a challenge — how to produce oxygen on the Moon — they stumbled upon a new solution to one of the biggest climate polluters on the planet: the steel industry.
Right now, steel factories emit about 3 billion tons of CO2 a year, or nearly three times more than the airline industry as a whole. Emissions do not result from the use of energy alone, but from the process: the first stage usually involves combining a form of coal with iron ore in a giant furnace, and as it burns, the chemical reaction creates CO2. . While the industry is experimenting with alternatives, including using green hydrogen and carbon capture, they are expensive and likely to grow slowly. Helios’ approach could cost less than the status quo.
“If you really want to encourage industry to reduce its emissions – and do it not by 2050, but in the coming 10 years – in our opinion, the only way to do that is with a solution. Their OPEX, will reduce their cost of production,” Gifman says. “We completely disregard carbon credits on purpose: we want to show that the process is more efficient at its core. We don’t want to rely on subsidies or taxes to make this technology work.” Since the new process eliminates direct CO2 emissions, it also cuts energy use in half, helping steel producers save money. Is.
The Israel-based company discovered a new method while developing an approach to generate oxygen from regolith, the rocky mantle on the Moon. (One of the challenges to the Moon landing is the expense of transporting oxygen from Earth, for use by both astronauts and rocket propellants.) On Earth, the simplest way to separate oxygen from iron oxide is to use carbon ( and causing pollution). But there is little carbon on the Moon. The team needed to “throw everything out and come up with a completely new concept,” says Jiffman.
For proprietary reasons, the startup declined to describe the details of the chemical process taking place in its new reactor. But the basic approach is simple, and substitutes another material for the carbon. As they began testing it to produce oxygen, they realized that they were also producing a lot of iron. “We got 10 times more than we calculated,” he says. “That was repeated from time to time. We realized that we had an additional process going on inside the reactor beyond our process. Disassembled and reassembled the furnace 20 times.”
When he realized that this was an efficient way to make iron, he reached out to experts in the steel industry. “When we came up with this, we were sure we were missing something,” he says. “I mean, by no means have we come up with a new method for producing iron ore and steel yet – these materials have been produced for almost 3,000 years. The next logical step is to reach out to industry and respond to them. And to our surprise, we realized that we had actually come up with an entirely novel approach to iron production.”
This process can take place inside a direct reduction iron (DRI) furnace, a type of equipment that many steel manufacturers already have. This eliminates direct emissions, and because it also uses half the energy of the typical process, it also significantly cuts emissions from the fossil energy used in the equipment. If the equipment is converted to use clean energy, emissions can drop to zero.
Although there are many approaches to helping the steel industry reduce emissions, the new technology has advantages. Recycling of steel is also important, but because steel is used in buildings, bridges, and other long-term applications, it cannot be recycled as quickly; There is not enough recycled steel to meet demand. Green hydrogen can also be helpful but is “still extremely expensive and cost prohibitive,” says circular economy group manager Andrew Buchanan. material processing institute, a non-profit organization that conducts research on advanced materials and industrial decarbonization. (Even using hydrogen in steel production may not eliminate emissions completely, although it does reduce them by 90%.) Energy costs are the biggest expense for steel producers; So a solution that minimizes that cost is automatically attractive, Buchanan says. This can help transform the industry globally, not only in places like the European Union, where regulation is leading to rapid change.
With a new round of seed funding from At One Ventures, a VC firm founded by former Google X leader Tom Chi, Helios plans to demonstrate its technology on a large scale and begin construction of a pilot plant. At the same time, it is preparing the technology for use in upcoming lunar missions over the next two years. But steel technology has the potential to benefit rapidly. Changes in the industry can happen relatively quickly, Ziffman says, because it is relatively concentrated despite its enormous size. “If you work with the 10 or 20 biggest producers in the world, that’s a big chunk of global production,” he says.