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Energy startup discovers new benefit while developing innovative iron-air battery — and it could revolutionize an entire industry

"We found a cheaper, more scalable, more efficient process."

"We found a cheaper, more scalable, more efficient process."

Photo Credit: Form Energy

Experts from Massachussett's Form Energy think they can clean up the dirty steelmaking process with battery science. 

The team made headlines last summer with an iron-air battery that can power up and down as rust turns to iron — and rusts again — in a repeated cycle. It's a unique bit of chemistry that is designed to be a cheaper alternative to lithium power packs for grid storage. 

It turns out that the process can also more cleanly prepare iron for steelmaking without fossil-fueled, high-heat furnaces, according to a story on the breakthrough from Canary Media. 

"Iron has a high affinity for oxygen. Over the four billion years or so the iron has been in the Earth's crust, it has turned to iron oxide or hydroxide," Carnegie Mellon University steelmaking researcher P. Chris Pistorius said in the story. 

The oxygen must be removed to prepare it for steelmaking, which is half of the process happening with the Form iron-air rust battery. 

Canary reported that Form's experts made a system that "places powdered iron ore in a low-temperature alkaline solution." Electricity creates metallic iron powder as part of a process that can be repeated "continuously and at high efficiency." It works sort of like the battery concept, by separating the oxygen from the iron with an electrical current, removing the rust. 

"We found a cheaper, more scalable, more efficient process for producing green iron," Form CEO Mateo Jaramillo said to Canary. ​

Better yet, the electrolysis cost should be on par with current methods — and a lot cleaner. The plan is to use renewable energy to power the works, per Canary. 

"The main electricity consumption is breaking the bonds between iron and oxygen. That's a fixed baseline that you can't get below," Pistorius said in the story. 

The journal Science noted that about two billion tons of steel is made each year. It is widely reported that steelmaking accounts for at least 7% of human-caused global air pollution. 

According to the Canary, the Form project has been awarded $1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy. It's one of 13 efforts in nine states that were given a total of $28 million to "decarbonize" steelmaking. 

"The process has the potential to produce greenhouse gas emission-free iron at cost parity with today's carbon-intensive ironmaking methods," per a press release about the funding award shared by Form. 

Efforts elsewhere on the planet include one in Europe using hydrogen instead of dirty fuels to make steel. 

The Form innovation is an example of how ingenuity and imagination can lead to unexpected results — in this case, with the potential to prevent a lot of air pollution from being generated during the production of one of our most common building materials. 

Innovations like this can be transformative for our planet's health. NASA has linked planet warming to increased risk of extreme weather events, wildfires, and other disasters. They are even impacting our insurance premiums and coverages. 

Form's team is bullish that its concept can help. 

"We know that it has a chance to create a ton of value, so we're going to pursue it," Jaramillo told Canary.

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