Advancing beyond the Iron Age for steel production

Sydney Rose Johnson, a graduate student at MIT, is delving into the world of steel production without ever setting foot in a steel mill in central India or touring the steel plants in the American Midwest or along the Mississippi River.

As a fourth-year dual degree MBA and PhD candidate in chemical engineering and a graduate research assistant at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and a Shell Energy Fellow for 2022-23, Johnson is focused on finding ways to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from challenging industrial sectors, notably the steel industry.

Steel, a fundamental component in infrastructure spanning buildings, bridges, vehicles, and transportation systems, remains largely unchanged in its manufacturing process since the Iron Age, with some steel plants operating continually for over a century.

The World Economic Forum projects a 30 percent increase in steel demand by 2050, driven by population growth and economic development in nations like China, India, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

One of the world’s top CO2 contributors, the steel industry produced an average of 1.89 tons of CO2 per ton of steel in 2020, amounting to about 8 percent of global CO2 emissions, states the World Steel Association.

To combat this high level of emissions, Johnson emphasizes the necessity of employing both technical solutions and financial investments to reduce the steel industry’s environmental impact.

Johnson’s research is centered on modeling and evaluating methods for decarbonizing steel production, utilizing data from academic and industry sources to analyze emissions, costs, and energy consumption at the plant level.

“My focus is on optimizing steel production by considering emissions targets, industry commitments, and costs,” Johnson explains. She tailors this approach to case studies regarding India’s numerous steel factories with a combined capacity of 154 million metric tons and studies the impact of the Inflation Reduction Act on the U.S. steel industry.

By comparing emissions and costs across different production avenues, Johnson aims to identify the most cost-effective strategies for achieving emission reduction goals in the steel sector.

“I aim to gain insights into how current and emerging decarbonization techniques can be integrated into the industry,” Johnson states.

Grappling with Industry Challenges

Hailing from Marietta, Georgia, Johnson’s early exposure to industrial operations through her father, a chemical engineer, and her high school internship with chemical engineers kindled her interest in engineering and industrial problem-solving.

During her senior year internship at Kemira Chemicals, Johnson worked on analyzing the stability issues of a polymer product, delving into the formulation, testing, and root cause analysis of the problem.

The experience encouraged her to pursue engineering further and explore diverse fields within the discipline during her undergraduate studies at Stanford University.

Stepping Up to the Challenge

Johnson’s research at MIT now centers on the intersection of technology, climate impact, and policy, particularly focusing on ameliorating the environmental footprint of industries.

Her work within the sphere of heavy industry has shed light on the critical role of sectors like steel production in the climate change discourse, underscoring the urgency for adopting greener practices.

Despite the complexity of steel production and the sector’s heavy reliance on coal, Johnson remains optimistic about the industry’s potential for embracing sustainability measures. She points out that while steel mills can be energy-efficient, their emissions-intensive operations demand innovative solutions.

Traditionally produced from iron ore through smelting, steel accounts for a substantial share of emissions in the industry. Johnson emphasizes the importance of reducing not only CO2 emissions but also other pollutants like NOx and SOx generated during the steelmaking process.

Exploring potential pathways to decarbonize steelmaking, including using cleaner fuels like hydrogen and electricity, as proposed by the International Energy Agency, Johnson leverages modeling tools to evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies.

While facing challenges in identifying optimal decarbonization solutions, Johnson remains committed to advancing cleaner technologies in the steel industry to pave the way for a more sustainable future.

Johnson acknowledges the cost implications associated with transitioning to low-carbon steel but stresses the environmental benefits of such a shift, highlighting the industry’s progress in recycling and adopting emission-friendly practices.

Post-graduation, Johnson intends to leverage her engineering and business acumen to drive climate change mitigation efforts, exploring opportunities in clean technology startups or policy roles that bridge the public and private sectors.

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