Open Problems in Industrial Innovation

9 minute read

Updated on: 29 Apr 2021

Problem 1: We need to get rid of coal in steel production.

What the world needs to solve this problem:

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At the moment, 70% of all steel is made in blast furnaces, where coal is a key ingredient . Coal is mainly used for: making coke, the important reducing agent used to convert iron ore into iron metal ; burning coke to release heat, which in turn powers the reactions in the blast furnaces .

Coal accounts for 75% of the energy consumption in steel manufacturing due to the high temperatures required to burn it . It therefore dominates the greenhouse gas emissions associated with steel production . Thankfully we have certain options available to replace our coal use. For example, hydrogen can be used as a replacement reducing agent , as well as biomass-derived agents . Using electricity derived from renewable energy sources to power the reaction can also reduce emissions. However, this only works in Electric Arc Furnaces (EAF), not blast furnaces. Today, EAFs only account for 25% of steel production .

Pushing to implement these two solutions on a wide scale will have a huge impact on the sustainability of the steel industry.

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arrow_forward Hannu
arrow_forward Green Spec
arrow_forward Berry Metal Company

Who is working on this:

arrow_forward Berry Metal Company

Problem 2: Clinker should be substituted with alternative materials that have lower carbon footprints.

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The main source of CO₂ emissions in the concrete industry is the manufacturing of cement. Clinker is the main ingredient in cement, and it’s not an environmentally friendly one either; producing 1 tonne of clinker releases around 0.706 tonnes of CO₂ . But there’s hope: certain substitute materials have the potential to decarbonise cement manufacture by ~70-90% .

Granulated blast furnace slag (GBFS), a waste material from steel manufacture, could not only reduce CO₂ emissions, but also enhance the strength and chemical resistance of the cement . Another alternative, fly ash, consists of dust particles produced in furnaces, and could both increase the workability of cement and reduce the amount of water needed to form concrete .

Despite the current lack of awareness around clinker alternatives, they could possibly pave the way to a 50% reduction of energy use and CO₂ emissions . Further research into these will depend mainly on availability and cost, as well as how the properties of cement change with substitution .

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arrow_forward Chatham House
arrow_forward Habert

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Problem 3: We must address the (many) issues with cotton.

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Cotton is a dirty industry - in terms of excessive water consumption and pesticide use ; exploitative (and even child) labour ; unsustainable land use ; and soil depletion . However, the world needs cotton; we make 27 million tons of it a year, enough for each person on Earth to receive 27 t-shirts !

Therefore, the industry must push to grow and produce sustainable cotton. Only around 12% of the global cotton supply is currently sustainable , with the companies who source it playing a huge role in its future.

Organic cotton, which focuses on alleviating environmental impacts, is on the rise - growing cotton organically leads to huge advantages for the planet and the people who process it, including 91% lower water demand, 62% less energy required, 46% lower CO₂ emissions and 26% less soil erosion .

Fairtrade cotton seeks to address the social aspects of cotton farming. A few organisations and standards, such as Cotton made in Africa (CmiA) and Better Cotton, cover both environmental and social dimensions . To clean up the cotton industry, we must increase both the supply and uptake of sustainable cotton options .

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arrow_forward The World Counts
arrow_forward Cotton Up
arrow_forward WWF
arrow_forward Soil Association

Who is working on this:

arrow_forward Cotton made in Africa
arrow_forward Fairtrade cotton
arrow_forward Organic cotton

Problem 4: Pre-combustion carbon capture needs to become more efficient.

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The biggest barrier that pre-combustion carbon capture is facing is that its use greatly decreases the efficiency of power plants . Multiple studies have found that energy efficiency drops by an average of 8 to 16 % when preCCC tech is installed .

The largest source of this reduction in efficiency is the “water-gas shift reaction” we learnt about in the chapter . It is responsible for nearly half of the efficiency loss in the pre-combustion system !

A potential solution is the use of membranes. Choosing a membrane which hydrogen can easily bind to, like palladium or zeolite membranes , means that hydrogen can be removed more efficiently from the reaction .

This research is still in its early stages and will require further investment to be viable in large scale power plants.

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arrow_forward Jansesn
arrow_forward Nazir
arrow_forward Nord
arrow_forward Sifat

Who is working on this:

arrow_forward Aspen products group

Problem 5: Reducing the environmental damage of postCCC is a must in order to adopt this technology.

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There are many problems that postCCC faces. As we saw in the chapter, the technology has various environmental impacts, such as eutrophication and acidification of nearby environments . So how can we make postCCC a more environmentally friendly process?

Scientists are working hard to solve this problem, for example by using electrochemical membranes instead of chemicals or physical sorbents , and cryogenic separation to remove the CO₂ from the flue gas . Researchers are also trying to improve the performance of the technology while reducing its operating costs to incentivize its implementation worldwide.

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arrow_forward Sifat
arrow_forward Štefanica

Who is working on this:

arrow_forward CanmetENERGY

Problem 6: Oxy-fuel is too expensive.

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As we saw in this course, oxy-fuel is the most expensive and least efficient way to remove carbon from power plants . However, the benefits that a highly concentrated stream of CO₂ could provide make improving the cost and efficiency of this technology crucial.

Serious brain power and money will need to be invested in this technology to make it viable in the future. Below are some novel ideas trying to do just this:

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arrow_forward Smith
arrow_forward Rubin
arrow_forward Rubin & Zhai
arrow_forward Khorshidi

Who is working on this:

arrow_forward canmetENERGY
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