A “first-of-a-kind” plant that uses renewable energy to produce green iron and consequently slash the emissions of steel production has launched in the US, with a Bill Gates fund and Amazon among its backers.

US start-up Electra announced on Wednesday that it has commissioned its pilot plant in Colorado to produce clean metallic iron from high-impurity ores using renewable energy.

Ironmaking accounts for 90% of the CO2 emissions in steel production, which in turn accounts for a whopping 7% of global emissions.

Electra says it is taking on this challenge by “enabling seamless integration of intermittent renewable energy resources making emissions-free iron possible”.

It uses what it says are “proven industrial-scale electrochemical and hydrometallurgical processes” to refine low-grade iron ores to high-purity iron at 60°C, "the temperature of coffee," and far colder than traditional processes using coal-fired furnaces.

“Clean iron produced from a wide variety of ore types is the key constraint to decarbonising the steel industry sustainably,” said Electra CEO and co-founder Sandeep Nijhawan.

“With support from our partners across the value chain, the pilot brings us closer to our goal of producing millions of tonnes of clean iron by the end of the decade.”

“Electra’s Pilot plant is a significant step towards a cleaner, more sustainable, and circular steel industry,” said Noah Hanners, executive vice president of Raw Materials at steelmaker Nucor.

In 2022, Electra raised $85m to support its plan from backers including Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the energy innovation fund of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Carmichael Roberts, who co-leads the fund’s investment committee, said at the time that “electrifying cost-effective ironmaking without carbon emissions is a paradigm shift in how steel has been made for centuries by burning fossil fuels” and is a “trillion-dollar market opportunity”.

Other big-name backers include US retail behemoth Amazon and Australian mining giant BHP Ventures.

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