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Opinion: A Win-Win-Win — The Appalachian Iron Green Steel Project

By Joe Zokaites

Principal, Arcova Development LLC

Here is a startling fact: The iron and steel industry accounts for around 7% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 11% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

But the world cannot go “steel-free.” Meeting the challenge of decarbonization of this industry is as daunting as it is critical.

Joe Zokaites

That’s why folks like me are applauding the recent joint action by political adversaries, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin on this topic. It is important for Americans, and indeed people everywhere, to see that elected officials with differing viewpoints can recognize opportunities to stand together in support of ideas that push forward toward common goals.

Governor Justice instructed the West Virginia Department of Economic Development to undertake a significant project in cooperation with a company, Magnum Green Steel USA, planning to bring to the United States, for the first time, new technology which promises enormous benefits, both in environmental protection and job creation. Sharing an appreciation of the groundbreaking potential of this project, Senator Manchin is seeking initial federal support for certain key tasks of applied research necessary to move this project ahead.

Americans should urge the Senate Appropriations Committee to fund this modest but critical request and seed what could become a landmark in the production of green steel in the United States.

The “Appalachian Iron Project,” when in full swing, will create 1000 family-sustaining wage jobs, the vast majority of which do not require a college degree, helping revitalize a hard-hit area of West Virginia, while simultaneously giving the United States a new approach to the domestic production of steel on a zero net carbon basis. 

As if this were not enough, the Appalachian Iron Project will produce green electricity beyond what is required for its own operations, supplying the excess zero net carbon energy to the grid.

A win-win-win situation.

More specifically, this project will convert waste iron oxide from slag dumps into pig iron, using sustainably sourced biochar. Converting locally sourced, and sustainably produced biomass such as forestry waste into biochar will generate carbon credits used to offset the carbon emissions from pig iron smelting. This will allow the pig iron to be certified as “green”, i.e. emitting net zero carbon dioxide. Biochar and local waste iron oxides will be injected into a HIsmelt furnace which will produce liquid pig, iron, slag, and waste heat. The “green” pig iron will be sold to local steel mills to allow them to produce net zero carbon “green“ steel. The slag will be sold to local cement manufacturers that will allow them to replace Portland cement in concrete, reducing carbon emissions further. The waste heat will be converted to steam and used to generate renewable electricity.

Republicans and Democrats can certainly agree on the need and appropriateness of federal investment in the development of such beneficial new technologies.

For decades, for example, there has been bipartisan support of federal investment in medical research, not only in basic science, but in the crucial area of translational medicine. This is the necessary transition where ideas showing promise at the scientific bench must make it across to clinical research, reaching patients at the bedside. However, in the absence of a degree of public investment, many promising ideas fail to make this transition, falling into what is known in the industry as “the valley of death.“

There is a similar “valley of death“ into which many new concepts for advanced manufacturing and for environmentally friendly manufacturing have fallen and continue to fall.

The funding request regarding the Appalachian Iron Project consists of applied research steps necessary for the full project to reach completion. These include optimization of configuration of a biochar plant for varying biomass sources, integration of HIsmelt slag into cement production, and the optimization of configuration of the HIsmelt power generation system to support the grid with renewable energy.

This project and its bipartisan support in West Virginia exemplify a “can-do Congress,” demonstrating that the shared goals of a clean environment and a bustling economy should continue to take priority ahead of hyper-partisan politics.

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