Industry is a large contributor to our modern carbon footprint, and steelmaking is a significant part of that, as steelmaking produces carbon monoxide.
In fact, about 50% of the carbon used in steelmaking is turned into carbon monoxide. The gas is often burned off in a process that releases lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to the degradation of the atmosphere and global warming.
Many industries are now struggling to figure out a way to turn carbon gases into something useful, instead of just releasing it into the atmosphere.
Well, one company in the steel industry just made a breakthrough, and it’s all thanks to rabbits.
The Belly of the Beast
Yes, those cute little furry creatures that ruin your vegetable garden are holding the key.
You see, a New Zealand company (now headquartered in Chicago) called LanzaTech is using microbes that were initially discovered in the intestinal tracts of rabbits to convert carbon-rich waste gases, such as carbon monoxide, into useful everyday liquid products.
LanzaTech’s process uses a proprietary form of clostridium microbes that it patented and wholly owns. The clostridium microbe belongs to the acetogen family of organisms. Acetogens are an ancient form of life, often found around hydrothermal vents.
What’s special about these microbes is that they grow on gases, not sugars. In other words, the process is a gas fermentation as opposed to a traditional fermentation.
Using the microbes and the fermentation process, the company transforms carbon-rich waste gases into liquids.
Here’s a video of the process.
Steelmakers Hopping On
Some factories have already successfully used LanzaTech’s novel technology.
One of those plants is run by China’s steel giant, Baosteel. The Chinese projects were extremely important because they showed that the process worked as advertised.
Now, ArcelorMittal (MT), the world’s largest steelmaker, is going to install a system at one of its plants later this year. The company is very familiar with the technology and has been planning for this integration for years – it’s been working with LanzaTech since 2011.
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The plan is for ArcelorMittal to invest 87 million euros in its facility in Ghent, Belgium to install a system that will convert waste carbon monoxide into bioethanol. This system will be much bigger than the system the Chinese use. In fact, it will be 30 times larger and capable of producing 47,000 tons of ethanol every year.
If the system is successful at Ghent, ArcelorMittal plans to install it across all of its vast operations. The company has operations in 19 countries, and last year it produced 93.1 million metric tons of steel.
Eventually, the company may be producing 10% of Europe’s bioethanol annually.
A Warm and Fuzzy Future
The initial tests in China were quite promising, which bodes well for this new technology. And LanzaTech has some prominent backers, including Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.
Plus, it’s refreshing to see such a big global firm in a historically dirty industry looking for ways to reduce the release of carbon dioxide.
Or as LanzaTech’s CEO Jennifer Holmgren put it, “turning an environmental liability into a financial opportunity.”
And the chase continues,