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BHP Group ventures into microbial solutions for sustainable steelmaking

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In a groundbreaking initiative, mining giant BHP Group is teaming up with Boston startup Allonnia to investigate the potential of harnessing microorganisms to clean its iron ore. This innovative approach aims to revolutionize steelmaking processes and significantly reduce the industry’s carbon footprint, as reported by Bloomberg.

Conventional steel production, largely reliant on coal-fired blast furnaces, contributes a staggering 8% of global carbon and methane emissions annually, according to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. However, a cleaner alternative known as direct reduced iron (DRI) offers promise by substituting coal with cleaner-burning natural gas or emissions-free hydrogen. The challenge lies in obtaining high-purity iron ore, particularly since much of BHP’s ore from Western Australia contains impurities.

Enter Allonnia, which has discovered microorganisms within BHP’s ore capable of consuming phosphorus and eliminating other unwanted contaminants. The plan is to leverage these microbes to purify vast quantities of raw ore, elevating its grade to meet the requirements for DRI. If successful, this bio-based process could significantly reduce the reliance on coal in steelmaking. Furthermore, with the integration of clean hydrogen, DRI steel production could eventually become carbon-neutral, offering immense benefits for both the environment and human health.

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The importance of greener steel cannot be overstated, as it is integral to the construction of resilient infrastructure, including bridges, and the advancement of electric vehicles. As the world’s largest mining company, BHP is committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, despite its current emissions nearly matching the total output of the United Kingdom. BHP’s rivals, such as Rio Tinto and Fortescue, are also exploring cleaner alternatives like biomass, microwaves, and hydrogen to process lower-grade ores.

Simon Farry, Rio Tinto’s head of steel decarbonization, acknowledges the transformative potential of such initiatives, emphasizing the need for an evolutionary shift over the next few decades rather than an overnight revolution.

While uncertainties remain, the imperative to address steel’s environmental impact is undeniable. The utilization of microorganisms presents a promising avenue towards greening one of the world’s most polluting industries. With their microscopic appetites, these microbes may well catalyze a profound revolution in steel production, paving the way for a sustainable future.

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