Company aiming to create oxygen on moon finds process to make steel plants cleaner
Helios claims that replacing carbon with sodium to prise oxygen out of iron ores — an early stage in steel manufacturing — can slash carbon emissions, energy and production costs
Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.
An Israeli company working on technology to produce oxygen on the moon for future settlement has hit on a recipe it says could substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions and costs for the steel industry.
Just under two billion tons of steel were produced globally in 2022.
According to Jonathan Geifman, co-founder and CEO of Helios, based in central Israel, around two tons of global warming carbon dioxide are emitted for every ton of steel produced, making the industry responsible for eight percent of humanity’s carbon footprint.
The first stage of steel production is to produce iron, which exists in the earth as iron oxides. Iron oxides are mined and then put into very high-temperature blast furnaces with coal to cause the oxygen molecules in the former to bind with the carbon in the coal. The byproduct is carbon dioxide, a key global warming gas.
Helios has discovered that sodium — used to make table salt — can be used instead of carbon-rich coal. The sodium molecules connect with the oxygen molecules in the iron ore to form sodium oxide. Sodium oxide can then be separated back into sodium and oxygen, and the latter is released into the air. The sodium can then be reused.
The idea of using sodium in the steel industry came out of the company’s ongoing work on a lunar oxygen-producing reactor, aimed at separating oxygen from iron oxides found in lunar rock.
Geifman explained that the sodium method only required heating the mix to around 400°C, compared with more than 1,200°C for the traditional blast furnace method.
Helios already has a benchtop system in its laboratory and will be setting up a prototype to replace the conventional blast furnace in at least one overseas steel factory before the end of the year, according to Geifman.
“We’re talking to big steelmakers and will be setting up small demonstration models within their production chains that will use their existing energy infrastructure,” he explained.
He said that by replacing carbon with sodium, his company’s solution lowered direct carbon emissions during this part of the steel-making process to zero.
It also cut energy needs by half and indirect emissions (from the coal or natural gas used to fire the furnaces) by 80%-90%.
“When pricing steel, the cost of energy is the most volatile,” Geifman said. “So for the average steelmaker, reducing the most volatile factor helps to stabilize the price.”
He added that while it was still in early development, Helios was certain that its method could cut steel production costs by “tens of percentage points.”
Helios has already tested the technology and found it to be successful with other metals such as copper and nickel, Geifman added.
Helios’s investors include the multinational mining company Anglo American, Israel’s Doral Energy, a Silicon Valley Venture Capital fund, and a large European private equity fund.
The idea of using sodium in the steel industry came out of the company’s ongoing work on a lunar oxygen-producing reactor aimed at separating oxygen from iron oxides found in lunar rock.
Helios hopes to fly a small prototype of its oxygen factory to the moon in 2025.