It’s Tuesday, February 7, and researchers are making progress toward a greener steel industry.

Tata Steel steelworks at sunset in Port Talbot, Wales.

Researchers in the United Kingdom and China have discovered a new way to make steel that they say could cut the material’s greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 90 percent — a tantalizing prospect for an industry that produces up to 9 percent of the planet’s climate pollution.

Steelmaking is so carbon-intensive because it requires very high temperatures and a reducing agent — usually a kind of processed coal known as coke — to break down the chemical bonds in iron ore. To meet growing demand for steel as the world builds more cars, trains, solar panels, wind turbines, and other infrastructure, the International Renewable Energy Agency has said new techniques are urgently needed to reduce steelmaking emissions by 90 percent by 2050.

The new paper, published last month in the Journal of Cleaner Production, proposes a steel production system that it says could replace some 90 percent of the coke used in today’s most common steelmaking process. The system would use a material called perovskite to break down carbon dioxide produced during steelmaking into oxygen and carbon monoxide — both of which would be fed back into the process in a “nearly perfect closed carbon loop.” The reactions would take place at around 700 to 800 degrees Celsius (roughly 1,300 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit), temperatures that could be reached using renewable energy.

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According to the paper’s authors, their technique could be used to retrofit existing facilities, delivering immediate emissions reductions and preventing today’s steelmaking infrastructure from becoming obsolete. They estimate the process could reduce the U.K.’s total emissions by nearly 3 percent and save some 1.28 billion pounds ($1.54 billion) over five years.

A major catch, however, is that the researchers still haven’t figured out a way to replicate the structural stability that coke provides during the steelmaking process — meaning more research is still needed. “They haven’t addressed that physical element,” said Chathurika Gamage, a manager of the climate-aligned industries program at RMI, a nonprofit research institute. She told me that with countries ramping up their clean energy investments, other steelmaking techniques utilizing green hydrogen are quickly becoming cost-competitive as an alternative to the retrofits proposed in the new paper.

Meanwhile, other experts have emphasized the importance of decreasing demand for new steel, in part by expanding steel recycling.

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