MIT Makes Steel with Electricity

Boston Metal, an MIT spinout, is ready to commercialize a new steelmaking method that can potentially clean up steel’s dirty processes.

Typically, making steel involves mining iron ore, reducing it in a blast furnace with the addition of coal, then using an oxygen furnace to burn off excess carbon and other impurities. Steel production accounts for 7-9% of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Boston Metal is set on cleaning up steelmaking by using an electrochemical process called molten oxide electrolysis (MOE) to eliminate many steps in the current process. Its sole byproduct is a release of oxygen. MOE is already used to recover high-value metals from mining waste at its Brazilian subsidiary, Boston Metal do Brasil. That helps Boston Metal’s team deploy its technology at a commercial scale and to create key partnerships with mining operators. A prototype MOE reactor to produce green steel is at company headquarters in Woburn, Massachusetts.

A previous grant from NASA to explore ways to produce oxygen for future lunar bases prompted MIT to explore the idea of sending an electric current through iron oxide rock on the moon’s surface, using rock from an old asteroid in Arizona for their experiments. The reaction produced oxygen, with metal as a byproduct. After Boston Metal’s team published a 2013 paper in Nature describing the MOE platform, the project went from a small lab experiment to produce a few grams, then on to a company that can produce hundreds of kilograms, and soon, tons of metal. Steelmakers would license Boston Metal’s technology and deploy as many cells as needed to reach their production targets.

There’s excitement because everyone needs a solution capable of decarbonizing the metal industry. Boston Metal’s steel decarbonization technology is slated to reach commercial scale in 2026, though its Brazil plant is already introducing the industry to MOE. The Brazilian plant runs on 100 percent renewable energy.

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