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INTERVIEW: Boston Metal blazing path for 'green' steel without scrap, DRI: CEO


Supplies of scrap, DRI not adequate to meet global volume

MOE process cuts carbon intensive steps of blast furnaces

Electrolytic method can convert all grades of iron ore

  • Author
  • Nick Lazzaro
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  • Richard Rubin
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  • Coal Electric Power Energy Transition Natural Gas Metals
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Boston Metal has plans to produce steel with low carbon emissions that could fully drive a decarbonized steel industry unlike current "greener" methods, CEO Tadeu Carneiro says.

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Through its molten oxide electrolysis, or MOE, method, the company hopes to offer a promising alternative to other avenues of low-carbon-emission steel production that use scrap or direct-reduced iron, which have supply limitations, Carneiro said in an interview with S&P Global Commodity Insights.

"Our technology uses electricity to manufacture steel, so you have an electrolytic cell that's like a furnace where you add iron ore continuously [into a molten electrolyte composed of several oxides] and you pass electricity through an inert anode to break the bonds of the iron oxide," he said. "As you do that, you collect the iron units at the bottom of the cell, and you emit oxygen as a byproduct."

Once the iron ore is dissolved and reduced to a molten metal, it can be transported to ladle metallurgy, casting and rolling to produce a finished steel product.

Carneiro said Boston Metal's iron ore-based process eliminates many of the carbon intensive steps involved in blast furnace-based integrated steelmaking.

"In our cells, all you need is electricity and iron ore, and you don't need to do anything first with the iron ore like pelletizing or sintering," he said. "You will be eliminating the sintering or pelletizing, the coal, the coking coal furnace, the blast furnace, the torpedo cars and the basic oxygen furnace. All of this goes, and you instead add a battery of cells to get your molten steel."

Steel producers around the world, especially in the US, have begun to pivot away from integrated steelmaking in favor of scrap-based steel production with electric arc furnaces to reduce the carbon intensity of their operations.

However, Carneiro said scrap-based steelmaking only accounted for about 30% of the total global steel production volume of nearly 2 billion mt in 2021. The market share of scrap-based operations is only projected to increase up to 40% by 2050 due to the limited availability of quality scrap, he added, thus highlighting the need for a cleaner process to produce steel from iron.

"If you have scrap available, that's unbeatable, and that's the best way to do it," Carneiro said of green steelmaking. "The problem is you don't have 2 billion mt of scrap to remelt [to meet current global steel output volume]. You will still need more tons of steel coming from iron ore."

DRI can't fill gap

The steel industry has also looked to decarbonize its operations through the production of direct-reduced iron, or DRI, with natural gas or hydrogen. DRI is less carbon intensive than iron produced in a blast furnace, and it can be used to yield a "cleaner" finished steel product.

However, only about 114 million mt of DRI was produced in 2021, and volume growth is limited because the process relies on high-grade forms of iron ore, according to Carneiro.

"You don't have enough premium-grade iron ore for this technology to come anywhere close to meeting all of the non-scrap-based steel demand," Carneiro said.

Conversely, Boston Metal's MOE method can process all grades of iron ore, including lower qualities, thus averting the limitations imposed on DRI operations, he added.

Electricity key for process

Carneiro said the key for Boston Metal and its MOE steel production process is access to clean, renewable electricity.

"You have to believe that in the future, we will have that available, and it will be green and reliable and cheap," he said. "You need that for everything that the world is doing for transportation, for building and for infrastructure, not just for steel. We as a society are betting on it."

With an emphasis on access to renewable electricity, Carneiro said Boston Metal could look at certain regions where its technology could be readily implemented.

"Those geographies where you can get cheap and green electricity will be the natural first bets for us to implement the technology, so Quebec is high on the list," he said. "But in the US, we have offers from renewable generators to make the investment and get enough energy for us to implement the first industrial plant here as well."

TC noted that Scandinavia, Australia and Brazil also represent viable locations of interest.

Versatility and path to commercialization

Carneiro said Boston Metal is now working to stabilize its process in the pilot scale before it moves to build an industrial demonstration plant toward the end of next year.

"Once the industrial demonstration plant is running stable, then we can go commercial," he added. "We expect that to happen around 2026."

Carneiro said the MOE process is versatile as its capacity can be scaled up with the addition of electrolytic cells. Also, the technology can be deployed as the centerpiece of a greenfield steel mill, or it can be built on site at existing iron ore mines, integrated steel mills or EAF mini mills.

In addition to steel production, the process can be used to process mining waste to yield various high value ferroalloys and metals such as vanadium and chrome. Boston Metal already has an agreement with CBBM to produce ferroniobium in Brazil using its MOE process.

Boston Metal is currently backed by investors in various sectors. In the metals industry, these investors include mining giants Vale and BHP.