Cement and steel hold up the construction industry and steel also drives automotive manufacturing, so these raw materials have a big impact on the economy. They also have a big impact on the environment, and not in a good way, but there are biotech solutions that can help.
Cement production generates 2.3 billion tons of CO2 per year, or 6.5% of global emissions, while iron and steel production generate 2.6 billion tons, which is 7% of global CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.
Part of the problem is the huge quantities of these materials that is produced and used: “concrete (made from cement) is the second-most-consumed product on the planet, after clean water,” an article in Nature says, adding that cement and steel are dirty industries. “The chemical reactions involved give off CO2, as does burning fossil fuels to deliver the extreme temperatures required in the manufacturing processes.”
“The world must reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, even as industrial demand is growing and energy prices are spiking. Infrastructure, technology transfer and mechanisms for reducing financial risks must be established to allow low-emissions heavy industry to flourish,” Nature says.
Microbes can ferment CO2 from steel mills
Biotechnology has the ability to make a big difference in the net zero goal for cement and steel by offering options for making and using steel and cement that are more environmentally friendly.
According to “Biotech Solutions for Climate Report,” produced by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), biotechnology advances have enabled fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions to be captured and recycled via a pathway known as carbon capture and utilization (CCU), thereby reducing demand for fossil fuels and the resulting emissions without the need for biomass.
For example, “carbon recycling pioneer LanzaTech utilizes engineered microorganisms to ferment emissions captured from industrial facilities such as steel mills to either fuels or chemicals, depending on the choice of microorganism,” the Biotech Solutions for Climate Report says. “While the resulting products are not of biological origin, their climate benefits are substantial and comparable to those of biobased products in that both partially eliminate the need for fossil fuel extraction and serve as sinks for carbon that would otherwise be emitted to the atmosphere.”
Carbon capture solutions
Carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies, “enable carbon dioxide emissions from fossil power plants or industrial facilities, such as cement or steel, to be captured at the facility and stored underground,” according to the report from BIO. These technologies absorb carbon dioxide from exhaust gases or remove it prior to combustion.
Carbon dioxide collected and stored may be recycled into goods that are both climate-friendly and lucrative, as long as the recycling process does not generate further carbon emissions, Nature says.
According to a 2021 analysis by Lux Research, a market research organization based in Boston, Massachusetts, more than 80 companies are working on novel techniques to utilize CO2. The market for these items is currently small, at less than $1 billion, but Lux forecasts that it will increase to $70 billion by 2030, and might reach $550 billion by 2040.