Capitalizing On CO2: New Technologies Could Strengthen Steel Industry

Feb 18 2009 | 9:54am ET

By Larry Kristof -- Recent technological developments in the electro-reduction of carbon dioxide to formic acid, a valuable chemical with possible application in the steel pickling process, may offer an alternative to expensive large scale carbon capture and storage operations.

With the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the United States will soon follow in the footsteps of the European Union by introducing measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. Obama’s plan includes the introduction of a federal cap and trade system in which the government would set limits on carbon emissions by power plants, factories and other installations. Those who emit more carbon dioxide than the prescribed limit will be allowed to buy or trade permits with those that emit less. Further, Obama vows to allot US$15 billion each year to stimulate private sector efforts toward a clean energy future.

Essential to industrial development, the steel industry will play a vital role in the expansion of alternative technologies including wind, solar and the production of fuel efficient vehicles. For an industry that currently emits 4% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, implementation of a carbon cap and trade system would come as a big blow. Although improvements in efficiency have dramatically decreased the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, they remain a staggering 1.7 tons of carbon dioxide released per ton of steel produced. Global steel output is about 1.3 billion tons per year. Scientific advancements in carbon removal and conversion techniques are therefore paramount.

A great deal of emphasis has been placed on carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a way to deal with high carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon capture and storage is a broad term used to describe technologies that will capture carbon dioxide from point sources and store it in deep geological formations, in deep ocean masses, or as mineral carbonates. The processes involved in CCS have been demonstrated in other industrial applications, so it will likely be one part of the global solution. So far however, the associated costs and environmental risks have prohibited substantial commercial applications.

In light of the economic, technical and legal challenges facing the large-scale deployment of CCS, scientists are exploring innovative strategies to convert carbon dioxide into valuable fuels and chemicals. By turning a waste product into a commodity, researchers are hoping to provide a financial incentive for companies to begin the transformation to clean technologies.

Originating at the University of British Columbia, a new technology named ERC (the electro-reduction of carbon dioxide) aims to take CO2 directly from blast furnaces and convert it to formic acid, a valuable chemical with many industrial applications. Although the ERC process is not limited to use in the steel industry, a patented technology exists that claims the advantages of formic acid over the commonly used mineral acids for steel pickling. Such technology could provide a cyclical industrial benefit and an economic incentive for industry to take the next step toward CO2 mitigation.

Hydrochloric acid is currently used extensively in the steel pickling process to clean the oxidized surface of hot-rolled steel during the manufacturing process. It is an aggressive, non-biodegradable acid that corrodes the surrounding plant equipment, can pit the finished steel product, and must be put through an expensive regeneration or neutralization process before it can be reused or released into the environment.

Formic acid has many potential advantages over hydrochloric acid in steel pickling, including but not limited to; producing a better product quality, the ability to be re-used from the spent solution to provide an easy, cost effective recycling process and the fact that it is non-toxic and bio-degradable. The ERC process also produces oxygen as a byproduct which can be used in the blast furnace to increase iron production. 

The amount of formic acid that can be produced at any one steel plant would exceed the local pickling requirements, but the acid is widely used today in a variety of industrial processes and could replace many industrial chemicals in new applications where it becomes cost effective. New technologies also show that formic acid has the potential to play a leading role in fuel cell development, both as a direct fuel and as a fuel storage material for on-demand release of hydrogen.

As the political climate surrounding greenhouse gas emissions grows hotter it will be important for competitive companies to move towards technologies that not only reduce their environmental impact but provide an economic advantage. Innovators are working hard to find practical solutions by capitalizing on carbon dioxide as a valuable commodity instead of treating it as a waste that requires costly disposal. Now it is up to industry to take the bold steps needed to control the emission of carbon dioxide.

Larry Kristof is CEO, of  Mantra Venture Group, which facilitates investment in sustainable, commercially viable technologies. By aggressively seeking out clean tech innovations and renewable energy solutions, Mantra aims to connect investors with opportunities that meet today’s global environmental challenges.

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