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Prof. Develops CO2-Free Method of Developing Iron

George Washington University Professor Stuart Licht has developed a revolutionary carbon dioxide-free method of producing iron that could provide a breakthrough for an industry that has been using the same polluting process of iron smelting for more than three thousand years.

By using renewable solar energy and a process of solar conversion that he patented called Solar Thermal Electrochemical Photo (STEP) energy conversion, Dr. Licht is able to easily extract pure metal iron from the two prevalent iron ores, hematite and magnetite, without emitting carbon dioxide. Today, the commercial iron industry emits an estimated 6.8 trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

“STEP is a new renewable energy process that can capture carbon and makes the materials that society needs without emission of carbon dioxide. We’re developing processes to return the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide,” said Dr. Licht.

The process of producing iron free of carbon dioxide emissions is a culmination of more than 20 years of research by Dr. Licht. Through his years of study, Dr. Licht came to understand the efficient use of sunlight and the chemistry of iron, and found that iron ore at high temperatures is significantly more soluble than previously thought. In his most recent research, Dr. Licht found a new way to use electrolysis – a process that uses electricity rather than chemicals to create a reaction – to covert iron ore to iron metal. This high temperature electrolysis requires little energy, and can be powered through conventional or renewable energy sources to reduce or completely eliminate CO2 emissions. When powered by STEP, the electrolysis process is carbon dioxide free, creating no global warming gas emissions when converting the ore into metal. By using both solar thermal energy and visible sunlight, the STEP process converts more solar energy than the best solar cells, as it uses excess solar heat (energy discarded by solar cells) to drive iron production.

Dr. Stuart Licht is a chemistry professor at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at the George Washington University. He is an expert in renewable energy chemistry, physical and analytical chemistry. Much of Dr. Licht’s research leading up to this discovery has been published in journals such as Science and Nature. Dr. Licht first presented the STEP process and demonstrated that it can efficiently capture carbon in the article “A New Solar Carbon Capture Process: Solar Thermal Electrochemical Photo (STEP) Carbon Capture” published in the July 14, 2010 issue of The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters. His work with the STEP process is ongoing. Dr. Licht is currently working to develop solar jet fuel and synthetic diesel as well as producing bleach free of carbon dioxide emissions. The iron study was performed at the Licht laboratories at GW together with Dr. Baohui Wang, a visiting professor from the Northeast Petroleum University in China, and was published in the August 23, 2010, online edition of Chemical Communications.

Established in 1821 in the heart of the nation's capital, GW's Columbian College of Arts and Sciences is the largest of the University's academic units with more than 40 departments and programs for undergraduate, graduate and professional studies. Columbian College provides the foundation for GW's commitment to education, research and outreach, providing courses ranging from the traditional disciplines to a wide variety of interdisciplinary and applied fields for students in all the undergraduate degree programs across the University. An internationally recognized faculty and active partnerships with prestigious research institutions place Columbian College at the forefront in advancing policy, enhancing culture and transforming lives through scientific research and discovery.

In the heart of the nation's capital with additional programs in Virginia, The George Washington University was created by an Act of Congress in 1821. Today, GW is the largest institution of higher education in the District of Columbia. The University offers comprehensive programs of undergraduate and graduate liberal arts study, as well as degree programs in medicine, public health, law, engineering, education, business and international affairs. Each year, GW enrolls a diverse population of undergraduate, graduate and professional students from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and more than 130 countries.

Emily Cain | Newswise Science News
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