The magazine of the Case Alumni Association
at the Case School of Engineering


New steelmakers

A Case research team aims to replace the blast furnace with electrochemistry.

Steel team: Rohan Akolkar, far right, with some of his research team. From left: doctoral student Ben Holcombe ‘22; postdoctoral researcher Ruwani Wasalanthri, and research engineer Nicholas Sinclair ’12, MS ’22.

For more than a century, steel has been made by mixing carbon and iron at very high temperatures, creating one of the world’s strongest and most versatile building materials. But blast-furnace ironmaking is energy intensive and heavily polluting.

A Case professor thinks there’s a better way.

Rohan Akolkar, a chemical engineer, is leading a research team working to develop a zero-carbon, electrochemical process to produce iron metal from ore. If successful, the project could be a first step toward transforming steelmaking with a cleaner, electrolytic-iron production process.

Recently, Akolkar’s team won a $1 million grant from the Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office of the U.S. Department of Energy to pursue the idea.

“We don’t use carbon at all in our process, so iron could be produced cleanly,” Akolkar explained in a university news release. “Between 7-8% of greenhouse gas emissions are due to steelmaking, and the industry has been practicing the same technology for more than a century. This may not be sustainable.”

Case will lead a team that includes Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the University of Arizona, and Cleveland Cliffs — the largest flat-rolled steel company in North America and a leading supplier of steel for cars.

Akolkar, the Maltz Professor of Energy Innovation at the Case School of Engineering, said his team has developed a unique chemistry and process — a novel molten salt electrolysis method — that promotes sustainability.

“Our process has the benefits of being low cost and can achieve high rates, but also while using environmentally benign chemicals,” he said.

His steel team includes CSE research engineer Nicholas Sinclair ’12, MS ’22, and recent Case graduate Ben Holcombe ’22.

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