Nucor has made an equity investment in carbon-free iron producer Electra as it boosts its development and production of sustainable steel.
Electra uses renewable energy to refine low-grade iron ores into a higher-quality material through electrochemical and hydrometallurgical processes. The material can then be used in the steelmaking process to offset other high-quality metals that come with higher greenhouse gas emissions.
The process developed by Colorado-based Electra produces a low-temperature iron from commercial and low-grade ores using intermittent renewable electricity. Electra refines the low-quality material into pure iron at 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That iron can then be turned into steel using electric arc furnaces.
The low-temperature process helps significantly reduce emissions in the steel industry because traditional production methods require temperatures up to 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit. That typically requires a large amount of coal to burn that hot, which in turn emits about 2 tons of carbon dioxide for every ton of steel produced.
Converting the scrap and low-quality iron allows the material to be used in electric arc furnaces, which make up around 70% of the steel production in the United States, Nucor says. The furnaces also use emit 75% fewer emissions than traditional blast furnaces, according to the Steel Manufacturers Association.
Electra’s process results in no carbon emissions, the company says. Electra recently raised $85 million from companies such as Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Amazon, BHP Ventures, Temasek, Baruch Future Ventures to help it further develop its methods.
“As part of our commitment to further reduce our GHG intensity, we are investing in a number of emerging technologies to help reduce our Scope 3 emissions for the raw materials mix we use to make advanced grades steel,” says Doug Jellison, executive vice president of raw materials at Nucor. “Electra’s process to produce carbon-free iron has the potential to transform the steel industry.”
Nucor has long set out to develop and produce sustainable steelmaking processes, as the steel industry as a whole attempts to mitigate its carbon-intensive production. The company says it is the largest recycler in North America, and primarily uses recycled scrap metals to make steel.
The use of electric arc furnaces combined with steel’s ability to be recycled means Nucor’s steelmaking facilities generate one-third of the carbon dioxide of extractive steelmaking plants, the company says. Last year Nucor launched net-zero steel products called Econiq, which includes General Motors as a user, made of 100% renewable electricity and using carbon offsets to negate emissions.
Electra is building a green iron refining pilot plant at its Boulder, Colorado, headquarters in 2023 and plans to have a commercial-scale demonstration plant in place during the second half of this decade. The company also has a development facility in Boston. Nucor has steel facilities in the US, Canada, and Mexico. The amount of the investment was not disclosed.