The US Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced $19 million in funding over four years for DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory to lead the multi-institutional Center for Steel Electrification by Electrosynthesis (C-STEEL). The center’s charge is to develop an innovative and low-cost process that would replace blast furnaces in steelmaking and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85%.
C-STEEL is a key project of the DOE’s Industrial Heat Energy Earthshot initiative, which aims to significantly cut emissions from the energy-intensive process of industrial heating. Partners in the center include Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Case Western Reserve University, Northern Illinois University, Purdue University Northwest and the University of Illinois Chicago.
The most energy-intensive step in steel production involves converting iron ore into purified iron metal or iron alloys using blast furnaces. This demands temperatures of 2500 to 2700 degrees Fahrenheit (1370 to 1480 ˚C).
The electrodeposition process involves dissolving iron ore in a solution and using electricity to initiate a reaction that deposits a useable iron metal or alloy for steelmaking. The solution is a liquid electrolyte similar to those found in batteries.
While current steelmaking requires intense heat from blast furnaces, our electrodeposition process will need low or even no heat input at all. It will also be cost efficient and adaptable to industrial-scale operations.
We will be building upon the immense knowledge base we gained about different battery electrolytes from the work done by the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, led by Argonne.—Brian Ingram, C-STEEL director and an Argonne group leader and materials scientist
The project has three thrusts. Two of them will investigate different processes for electrodeposition. One process will operate at room temperature using water-based electrolytes. The other will use a salt-based electrolyte and will function at temperatures 1800 to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit below current blast furnaces. The energy for this process is low enough that it could be provided by renewables or waste heat from a nuclear reactor.
A third thrust will focus on gaining an atomic-level understanding of each process. The goal of this thrust is to exert precise control over both the structure and composition of the metal products so that they can be incorporated into existing downstream processes of steelmaking.
Each thrust will incorporate an artificial intelligence-based platform to ensure a unified approach to electrolyte design. To that end, C-STEEL will be drawing upon the computational resources of two Leadership Computing Facilities, one at Argonne and the other at Oak Ridge. Both are DOE Office of Science user facilities.
C-STEEL will also take advantage of the materials characterization capabilities of two other DOE user facilities at Argonne, the Advanced Photon Source and the Center for Nanoscale Materials.
This research is being funded by the DOE’s Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences and Advanced Scientific Computing Research.