DOE launches $6B program to slash emissions from heavy industry

The Biden administration announced it will help fund projects to clean up the production of steel, cement, aluminum and other hard-to-decarbonize sectors.
By Maria Gallucci

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A worker wearing a safety mask and protective clothing shovels a silvery material in a black bucket
Elysis produces carbon-free aluminum for Apple products at a research facility in Canada. (Elysis)

The Biden administration has announced a $6 billion initiative to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions from heavy industrial sectors, including cement, chemical and steel production.

The program aims to accelerate progress in one of the hardest-to-decarbonize corners of the modern economy. Factories that make the raw materials used in everything from buildings, bridges and roads to fertilizer, appliances and cosmetics consume extraordinary amounts of energy and heat and, in some cases, directly use coal or carbon. This makes them particularly challenging when it comes to curbing planet-warming emissions.

The Industrial Demonstrations Program will provide competitive grants to companies and research institutes that are developing first-of-a-kind technologies or launching early-stage, commercial-scale projects, the U.S. Department of Energy said on Wednesday. The funding, which will cover up to 50 percent of project costs, comes from the Inflation Reduction Act and the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The $6 billion initiative is yet another exciting step in the race to fully decarbonize our heavy industries, and will help drastically reduce harmful pollution while ensuring America’s manufacturing sector is strong and competitive,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a statement.

Heavy industry — a broad category that also includes the production of aluminum, ceramics, iron and paper — accounts for about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions every year. The new program is part of the Biden administration’s pledge to decarbonize the U.S. economy by 2050.

Granholm said the program’s parameters are not super-defined.” The decarbonization technologies should be something we can learn from and then have that technology be replicated and taken to scale,” she said on Wednesday at the CERAWeek conference in Houston, Reuters reported.

Multiple rows of silver blocks are stacked four high
Elysis produces small batches of aluminum using a process that doesn't directly emit greenhouse gases. (Elysis)

The problem of decarbonizing heavy industry is especially vexing because it can entail reconfiguring how materials are produced in the first place. Solar panels and wind turbines are rapidly plugging into existing electricity systems, and battery-powered cars are proliferating on roads worldwide. But industrial facilities are only just developing the alternative technologies and chemistries that could drastically reduce their planet-warming emissions.

Take steel, for instance. Last year, the United States produced nearly 88 million tons of the high-strength material for building beams, railways, cargo ships, vehicles and washing machines. Many companies still operate extremely hot furnaces, in which purified coal is heated, melted and transformed into the iron ore that is converted into molten steel. Globally, steel production accounts for between 7 and 9 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Dozens of nascent green steel” initiatives are underway worldwide. In Europe and Japan, major manufacturers are building pilot plants that use hydrogen in lieu of purified coal in the blast furnace. In the U.S., MIT spinout Boston Metal recently raised $120 million to make steel using molten oxide electrolysis.” The startup’s approach involves using electric currents to heat iron ore to drive chemical reactions without using coal or hydrogen.

Producers of aluminum — the lightweight material used for soda cans, car doors, bike frames and more — are also making early progress on decarbonization.

Today, aluminum factories heat and melt the material alumina through an electrochemical process that uses large carbon blocks and directly releases greenhouse gases. Still more emissions are generated from the electricity used to run the giant smelting facilities. All told, the aluminum sector accounts for roughly 2 percent of global emissions.

Elysis, a joint venture of global mining giants Alcoa and Rio Tinto, is making relatively small batches of its carbon-free” aluminum using an alternative method that produces oxygen, not greenhouse gases. In 2019, the company made its first commercial batch at the Arconic Technology Center in Pittsburgh and sold its supply to Apple, which incorporated the aluminum into some of its 16-inch MacBook Pros. Now, Elysis is producing aluminum from a research facility in Quebec, which Apple said it would use for its iPhone SE.

However, other nascent efforts to produce cleaner aluminum have hit roadblocks. Plans to reopen an aluminum facility in Washington state using less-polluting methods recently fell apart after partners failed to reach an agreement over how to power the energy-hungry smelter.

Annie Sartor, aluminum campaign director for the nonprofit Industrious Labs, said the DOE’s new funding opportunity is an important tool to not only decarbonize American primary aluminum manufacturing, but stabilize and retain an industry that can provide essential building blocks to the clean energy economy.”

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.