Australia is the world’s largest iron ore producer and exporter, and it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Approximately 5.3 million tonnes of steel are produced in Australia annually1. This contributes enormously to GDP and Australian employment; however, it also contributes significantly to carbon dioxide emissions.
I have been studying metallurgical and materials engineering since 2007, learning about the production of materials such as steel. For the last three years, I have been studying a PhD at Swinburne University of Technology, on solar energy technology, focusing on reducing the carbon footprint of the steel-making industry.
I was drawn to steel because it is so widely used. From transport, to construction, to healthcare, and even cutlery and utensils, steel is vital in so many aspects of our lives. To make steel, we take iron ore, mix it with carbon and heat it to an extremely high temperature in a furnace. In fact, when liquid iron is converted into steel it reaches temperatures of up to 1,700 degrees Celsius- significantly hotter than volcanic lava. It’s at this stage when the carbon takes the oxygen out of iron ore and produces liquid iron, which is used to make steel. The problem with this process is that for every tonne of steel we make, we produce almost twice the amount of carbon dioxide.
My goal is to reduce the carbon emissions released during steel production by up to 50 per cent. My research involves using light from the sun as a source of heat, in a way similar to using a magnifying glass to start a fire, but on a much larger scale. What makes this process particularly efficient is that Australia’s iron ore mines are positioned directly under the sun. This means that steel can be made directly on the mining sites, which would eliminate the carbon emissions released in transporting the materials to a separate production site, as is currently the case.
After spending thousands of hours researching this technology, I felt ready to take the leap and present it to a wider audience outside my university. I applied for AMP’s Ignite program because I wanted to learn how to convey my technical work in simple words, and to showcase my idea to a business audience.
Through the Ignite training and mentoring program, I learnt how to summarise my research into an engaging elevator pitch. Winning the AMP Ignite competition came as a huge shock but it has given me a confidence boost. I’ve always believed in my research, but it was really valuable to learn that other people are also interested in this, and believe it has the potential to change the world.
I hope to use winning Ignite as a platform to reach more people with my research, and to get closer to implementing this technology in Australian mines. I have recently been offered a post-doctorate position with the CSIRO, in collaboration with the Swinburne University of Technology. This is a great opportunity for me to carry my research forward and will hopefully enable me to work towards pilot-scale testing of my technology.
In the future, I want to see both the steelmaking and solar industries working together to reduce carbon emissions, not only in Australia, but throughout the world.
Suneeti Purohit is a PhD student at the Swinburne University of Technology and is the 2019 winner of AMP’s Ignite program.