*[Enwl-eng] SFB Weekly: The promise of carbon-neutral steel

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A solutions-oriented weekly digest from Struggles From Below
24/09/21
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We've come to an inflection point here at SFB headquarters: plough on in the face of economic uncertainty or call it quits and move on to pastures new. In advance of such a tricky choice, we've decided to make one last call for patronage in a final bid for the publication to stand on its own feet financially. So if you get any value out of the service we provide, we hope you will consider becoming one of our sustaining patrons – whether its enough for a monthly takeaway, a sandwich or even just a coffee, any little you can afford to spare would be so gratefully appreciated.

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In our top read this week, The New Yorker's Matthew Hutson examines a new manufacturing technique that could drastically reduce the footprint of one of our dirtiest materials.

Steel production accounts for around 7% of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions. There are two reasons for this startling fact. First, steel is made using metallurgic methods that our Iron Age forebears would find familiar; second, it is part of seemingly everything, including buildings, bridges, fridges, planes, trains, and automobiles. According to some estimates, global demand for steel will nearly double by 2050. Green steel, therefore, is urgently needed if we’re to confront climate change.

Sometime around 2000 BCE, it was discovered, possibly by accident, that iron-heavy rock, or ore, became malleable when it was heated over charcoal fires. Today, we can explain why this happens: at high enough temperatures, iron atoms loosen their grip on oxygen atoms. The oxygen binds to the carbon in the charcoal, forming CO2, which flies off into the air. What’s left behind is purified, or “reduced”, iron. The process of reduction allowed the Iron Age to begin.

It’s hard to say exactly when steel was first made. From time to time, it would be created when carbon diffused from the charcoal into the iron, strengthening it. But steel production was hard to control until a few hundred years ago, when the blast furnace was invented. Using bellows, steelworkers increased the temperatures of their coal fires to nearly 3,000 degrees – hot enough to melt iron in large quantities.

Today, blast furnaces are still the main method used to reduce steel. Current models are about a hundred feet tall, and can produce ten thousand tons of iron in a day. Instead of charcoal, they use coke, a processed form of coal. Coke and ore go in the top of the furnace, and molten iron comes out the bottom, infused with carbon; this iron can be easily processed into steel. The steel industry produces around two billion tons of it each year, in a $2.5-trillion market, while emitting more than three billion tons of CO2 annually, most of it from blast furnaces.

Fortunately, we’ve since learned that there’s more than one way to purify iron. Instead of using carbon to remove the oxygen from ore, creating CO2, we can use hydrogen, creating H2O – that is, water. Many companies are working on this approach; this summer, a Swedish venture used it to make steel at a pilot plant. If the technique were widely employed, it could cut the steel industry’s emissions by 9%, and our global emissions by nearly 6%. That’s a big step toward saving the world.

Read the article

What we're reading:

How fish can still be part of a more sustainable food future
New research indicates that a fish-based diet could be good for the environment and people’s health. THE CONVERSATION


How India's air pollution is being turned into floor tiles
Smog is a leading cause of ill health around the world, but one Indian inventor is hoping to make it easier to breathe by scrubbing soot from the air and recycling it. BBC FUTURE


‘Ecofeminism is about respect’: the activist working to revolutionise west African farming
Mariama Sonko is an unstoppable force who continued her work even when she was ostracised by her community in Senegal. THE GUARDIAN


LA’s new reflective streets bounce heat back into space
The air in these neighbourhoods is getting cooler – with huge implications for sweltering cities worldwide. REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL


Social entrepreneurs fight to make gig work fairer, greener
Using ethical tech, Fairtrade products and equitable contracts, can social enterprises create a "good" gig economy? THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION


One to ponder:

The food wars
Vitamins or whole foods; high-fat or low-fat; sugar or sweetener. Will we ever get a clear idea about what we should eat? AEON
 
Quote of the week: 

"We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done." – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
 
Song of the week: 

Knucks - Los Pollos Hermanos 

That's it for today, folks. If you're enjoying this newsletter, please do forward it on to any friends who might be into it.

All the best,

Ollie

Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Struggles From Below
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