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A space tech company stumbled on a new way to cut emissions on Earth

Steel factories emit around 3 billion tons of CO2 a year. A new way of producing it eliminates direct CO2 emissions and cuts energy use in half.

A space tech company stumbled on a new way to cut emissions on Earth
[Photos: courtesy Helios]

When he cofounded the startup Helios four years ago, Jonathan Geifman was focused on space travel, not climate change. But as his team worked on one challenge—how to produce oxygen on the moon—they stumbled on a new solution for one of the biggest climate polluters on the planet: the steel industry.

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Right now, steel factories emit around 3 billion tons of CO2 a year, or around three times as much as the entire airline industry. The emissions aren’t just from energy use, but from the process: The first step typically involves combining a form of coal with iron ore in a giant furnace, and as it burns, the chemical reaction makes CO2. While the industry is experimenting with alternatives, including using green hydrogen and carbon capture, they’re expensive and likely to grow slowly. Helios’ approach could cost less than the status quo.

[Photo: Haya Gold/courtesy Helios]
“If you actually want to incentivize the industry to reduce its emissions—and not to do it by 2050, but to do it in the coming 10 years—in our opinion, the only way to do it is by coming up with a solution that will reduce their opex, their production costs,” says Geifman. “We completely disregard carbon credits on purpose: We want to show that this process is more efficient at its core. We don’t want to rely on subsidies or taxes in order to make this technology work.” As the new process eliminates direct CO2 emissions, it also cuts energy use in half, helping steel producers save money.

[Photo: Helios]
The Israel-based company discovered the new method while developing an approach to generate oxygen from regolith, the rocky covering on the moon. (One of the challenges for moon landings is the expense of transporting oxygen from Earth, for use both by astronauts and in rocket propellant.) On Earth, the simplest way to separate oxygen from iron oxide is to use carbon (and create pollution), but there’s little carbon on the moon. The team “needed to throw everything out and come up with a completely new concept,” Geifman says.

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For proprietary reasons, the startup declined to describe the details of the chemical process that happens in its new reactor. But the basic approach is simple, and substitutes another material for 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’d calculated,” he says. “That was repeated time after time. We realized that we had an additional process that is going on inside the reactor beyond just our process. . . . I think we disassembled and reassembled the furnace 20 times to try and understand what was going on.”

[Photo: Haya Gold/courtesy Helios]
When they realized that it was an efficient way to make iron, they reached out to experts in the steel industry. “When we came up with this, we were sure that we were missing something,” he says. “I mean, no way we just came up with a novel method to produce iron and steel—these materials have been produced for nearly 3,000 years. The next logical step was to reach out to the industry and to get their feedback. And to our surprise, we realized that we actually came up with a completely novel approach to produce iron.”

The process can happen inside a direct reduction iron (DRI) furnace, a type of equipment that many steelmakers already have. It eliminates direct emissions, and because it also uses half the energy of the typical process, it also significantly cuts emissions from fossil energy used in the equipment. If the equipment is converted to use clean energy, emissions can drop to zero.

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[Photo: Haya Gold/courtesy Helios]
Although there are multiple approaches to help reduce emissions in the steel industry, the new technology has advantages. Recycling steel is also important, but because steel is used in buildings, bridges, and other long-term applications, it can’t all be recycled quickly; there just isn’t enough recycled steel to meet demand. Green hydrogen could also be helpful but is “still extremely expensive and cost prohibitive,” says Andrew Buchanan, circular economy group manager at the Materials Processing Institute, a nonprofit that researches advanced materials and industrial decarbonization. (Using hydrogen in steel production also can’t completely eliminate emissions, though it reduces them by as much as 90%.) Energy cost is the biggest expense for steel producers; so a solution that reduces that cost is automatically appealing, Buchanan says. It could help transform the industry globally, not just in places like the European Union where regulation is leading to faster 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 at a larger scale and begin building pilot plants. Simultaneously, it’s preparing the tech for use in upcoming lunar missions over the next two years. But the steel technology will likely be profitable faster. Changes can happen relatively quickly in the industry, Geifman says, because it’s relatively concentrated despite its massive size. “If you work with the 10 or 20 biggest producers in the world, that’s a major chunk of the global production,” he says.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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