How the Steel Industry Wants to Make Fuel

Source:  ArcelorMittal

Source: ArcelorMittal

ArcelorMittal SA, the world’s largest steelmaker, is telling us that there is a new kind of fuel coming our way, and even though it may use a proven refinement technique, its source of crude elements is a hair unorthodox. Over the past few months, we’ve reported on quite a few emerging alternative fuel options like Toyota’s utilization of hydrogen power for its new car, the Mirai, and how Audi has made diesel fuel out of water and CO2. We have reported on some seriously bonkers concepts as well, like the solar-powered roads of the Netherlands, and how lightning could be a form of fuel once it is harnessed properly.

But this latest development is pretty far out there, even for us. By this point, everyone knows that manufacturing plants crank out insane amounts of waste gas and that carbon dioxide emissions from said facilities are a serious threat to both our lungs and the environment. So what ArcelorMittal plans on doing is take all of this spent gas from its steel operations and convert it into fuel for vehicles by harnessing… micro-organism waste.

According to the report, the steel-driving giant will team-up with carbon recycling company Primetals Technologies USA and technology service provider LanzaTech to build a $96 million bio-ethanol facility in Ghent, Belgium, in the hopes of producing enough fuel for a half million cars. Construction is slated for later this year, and according to the company’s press release the facilities are expected to be ready for trial runs by 2018. If all goes well, and the three company’s joint venture works as it should, the plant will produce over 47,000 tons of ethanol a year for the European market.

While the use of ethanol isn’t fresh news, the process in which these guys will be “generating” it is cutting edge on many levels. When refining and manufacturing metals (steel in particular) about half of the carbon used in the process escapes as carbon monoxide, and typically it is either flared directly into the atmosphere or is recycled as heat and power for the steel mill. Unfortunately both of these options generate sizable amounts of carbon dioxide, and until now no one has been able to harness these hazardous gases on a large scale. So when LanzaTech found a way to use waste gas-eating microbes as a catalyst for turning carbon dioxide into bio-ethanol, we were intrigued to say the least.

Source: ArcelorMittal

Source: ArcelorMittal

Much like how an earthworm eats compost and poops out loamy soil, these little microbes do the same with carbon dioxide by turning it into bio-ethanol. This marks Europe’s first attempt at creating bio-ethanol on a commercial-scale from steelmaking gases, and scientists say that if it proves successful the results could be staggering: LanzaTech claims that bio-ethanol can “cut greenhouse gas emissions by over 80%.” And while the final product will still be primarily utilized for blending with gasoline, there is substantial talk of making it compatible with other combustibles like jet fuel down the line.

LanzaTech’s technology basically ferments the waste gases with a proprietary microbe to produce the eco-friendly fuel, and supposedly every ton of bio-ethanol produced will displace 5.2 barrels of gasoline and reduce ArcelorMittal’s CO2 emissions by 2.3 tons. This carbon recycling technology works so well that it was recently awarded the the EPA’s highest green chemistry honor, the Presidential Green Chemistry Award, as LanzaTech continues to collaborate with everyone from Boeing to Japanese industrial conglomerate Mitsui.

ArcelorMittal has been working on this project since 2011, and once commercial viability of the project was proven, the construction of future plants all across Europe was approved. “This partnership is an example of how we are looking at all potential opportunities to reduce CO2 emissions and support a transition to a lower carbon economy” said Carl De Maré, Vice President of Innovation at ArcelorMittal. “It is an example of why our carbon footprint should be viewed on a life cycle analysis basis, given steel is 100% recyclable and the material impact we make on reducing the carbon footprint of our customers through product innovation.”

But the production of bio-ethanol is still a relatively new activity, and there are a lot of risks that go along with a massive project like this, as there is no set path to follow or manual to reference. Trial runs have proven successful, but that doesn’t mean that full-scale production is not going to yield headaches like sub-par  conversion levels, high energy consumption rates, and unexpected environmental side effects. But overall, this is a huge step toward converting unwanted, dangerous gases into combustible green energy and our only concern now is how expensive this product will be once it is refined.

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