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U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, left, and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, right, listen to Sandeep Nijhawan, center, CEO and cofounder of Electra, a Boulder company developing a low-temperature water and chemical solution for refining low grade iron ore. On the table in front of Nijhawan is a series of production samples made by Electra and made available for Bennet and Neguse as part of a facility tour arranged for them. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado has slashed carbon from electrical plants through renewable generation. Cars are going low-carb with battery power. Gas water heaters are getting swapped for instant-on, clean electric models. 

Decarbonizing steel production, though, is the toughest greenhouse gas diet of all. 

Steelmaking, alongside high-heat cement plants, has long been the target of environmentalists and entrepreneurs seeking solutions to global warming. Carbon released in worldwide steel production makes up 8% of international carbon dioxide emissions. 

A Boulder company, Electra, believes it can do better. On Friday, Electra’s engineers showed U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse, both Democrats, their patented process for producing the iron that goes into steel at the temperature “of a cup of coffee.” Their method also employs plentiful low-grade ore of the kind discarded at iron mines, which they say could contribute to another whole line of environmental cleanup around the world. 

Producing the molten iron at the current coal-fired rates of 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit makes up 90% of the carbon emitted in the steel-making process, Electra officials said. 

Laboratory equipment frames Ken Caulfield, of Longmont, a senior scientist at Electra, a Boulder company developing a low-temperature water and chemical solution for refining low grade iron ore. Caulfield was photographed Friday during a tour with Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We’ve cracked the code,” said Electra co-founder and chief technology officer Quoc Pham, handing Bennet a beaker of red liquid constituting dissolved iron ore. 

Electra said it has attracted $85 million in capital so far, including investments from a major steelmaker, Nucor; Amazon, which is interested in cheaper steel for its logistics network; a car company; and others. The Boulder company is building a pilot project in a warehouse off the Diagonal Parkway that can manufacture 1-meter-square plates and 100 metric tons annually of solidified, purified iron. 

The next challenge would be financing and constructing a large demonstration plant near an iron ore or cheap power source, said Electra co-founder and CEO Sandeep Nijhawan. Because Electra’s process uses cheap iron ore and sharply reduces energy costs, the method could revive a steel industry in the U.S. that relies on Chinese and other cheaper imports, Nijhawan said.

Bennet and Neguse were enthusiasts, saying they were well aware that steel and cement have yet to be tackled in the carbon fight. 

The politicos also took the opportunity of a weekend trip home from the debt ceiling battles in Washington, D.C., to claim that Electra’s innovations would be directly threatened by GOP demands to stop subsidy spending from the Biden-backed Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

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“This is one of the toughest nuts to crack,” Bennet said. “We have to invent the answer. There is no better country than the U.S. to lead on this, no better state than Colorado, and that wasn’t true 18 months ago.” 

Both laws provide enormous subsidies and tax credits for cleaner manufacturing, electric-vehicle makers, battery producers and more. GOP leaders say the high spending tab from the bills is too much deficit spending and is fueling inflation in the U.S. economy. 

EVRAZ Rocky Mountain Steel in Pueblo, which melts steel scrap to make new train rails and other products, is now running “largely” on renewable energy, after the company helped develop a massive solar array around the plant to power most of its functions. The solar project was hailed as a major step in steel decarbonization, but traditional furnace processes may still need supplemental or backup power when renewable electricity can’t generate at peak levels. 

Pictured from left to right are U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder; Quoc Pham, CTO and cofounder of iron ore production technology company Electra; U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet; and Electra senior scientist Colleen Wallace, as they examine a scanning electron microscopy image of iron ore viewed at 4,500x magnification. The image was one highlight of a facility tour of the Boulder company, known for developing a low-temperature water and chemical solution for refining low grade iron ore. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Minimills that make new steel by melting steel scrap rather than melting iron ore now dominate U.S. steelmaking. Electra officials believe their technology can scale up to create an iron plant producing 300,000 to 1 million tons a year from low-grade ore. (Strengthening metals are added to iron to create steel for structures, auto and appliance manufacturing, and other uses.)

A primary challenge for Electra to move forward into large-scale production is expanding a highly educated workforce, Nijhawan said. The company needs more engineers, industrial designers and other employees, and is constantly struggling to find them. 

“Where I do lose a lot of sleep is talent,” he said. 

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver