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One of world's biggest mining companies expands horizons with innovative solution: 'An absolute revolution for the industry'

If successful, this nature-powered process could reduce the need for coal in steelmaking.

If successful, this nature-powered process could reduce the need for coal in steelmaking.

Photo Credit: iStock

Imagine if it was possible for an army of hungry microbes to help clean up one of the world's dirtiest industries. That's exactly what mining giant BHP Group aims to find out.

BHP is partnering with Boston startup Allonnia to test whether specially crafted microorganisms can purify its iron ore, enabling greener steelmaking processes. This innovative approach could be a game-changer in the urgent quest to reduce the steel industry's massive carbon pollution rates, according to Bloomberg.

Traditional steel production, which relies on dirty coal-fired blast furnaces, is responsible for a whopping 8% of carbon and methane pollution annually, according to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

However, a potentially cleaner method called direct reduced iron (DRI) offers hope. DRI replaces coal with methane gas — the climate impact of which compared to coal is under debate — and, more importantly, a cleaner option in hydrogen, with the hope of scaling up to hydrogen entirely.

The catch? DRI requires high-purity iron ore, but most of BHP's ore from Western Australia is loaded with impurities. That's where the tiny microbes come in.

Allonnia discovered phosphorus-eating microorganisms in BHP's ore that can also shake loose other unwanted gunk. The plan is to harness the microbes to purify giant mounds of raw ore, creating a high enough grade for DRI.

If successful, this nature-powered process could reduce the need for coal in steelmaking. If conducted fully with green hydrogen, DRI steel production could massively reduce its carbon pollution. That's a big if, but it could be a real win for the climate and human health to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

Greener steel is crucial for everything, from resilient bridges to electric vehicles. As the world's biggest miner, BHP plays a key role. The company aims to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 — a monumental challenge given that its current yearly emissions nearly equal the U.K.'s total output.

BHP isn't alone in this quest. Rival miners Rio Tinto and Fortescue are also exploring cleaner solutions like microwaves and hydrogen to handle lower-grade ores.

As Simon Farry, Rio Tinto's head of steel decarbonization, told Bloomberg: "This is an absolute revolution for the industry, but it's not going to happen at the speed of a revolution. It's going to be an evolution over two to four decades."

While many questions remain, one thing is clear — cleaning up steel is essential to avoiding climate catastrophe. Here's hoping the hungry microbes are up to the task. Their tiny appetites could help drive a revolution in greening one of the world's most polluting industries.

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