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Carbon Dioxide Free Production of Iron

Technology #10-006-licht

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The process allows for the extraction of pure metal iron from the two prevalent iron ores, hematite and magnetite, without emitting carbon dioxide.STEP is a new renewable energy process that can capture carbon and makes the materials that society needs without emission of carbon dioxide.
Dr. Stuart Licht
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."
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Researchers at the George Washington University have developed a revolutionary CO2-free method of producing iron that could provide a breakthrough for an industry that has been using the same highly polluting process of iron smelting for more than three thousand years. By using renewable solar energy and a process of solar conversion 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, or about 25% of entire world’s 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.  It is envisioned that the STEP processes has potential to return the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide. The process of producing iron free of CO2 emissions is a culmination of more than 20 years of research by Dr. Licht.  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 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 CO2 free when converting the ore into metal.  Traditional solar cells/panels convert only up to 40% of the sun’s thermal heat to solar energy.  The remaining 60% of the sunlight is untapped.  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.

STEP uses an electrolysis cell consisting of molten lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) as the electrolyte. Using the thermal energy of the sunlight, the cell is heated to a temperature above the melting point of lithium carbonate. Atmospheric CO2 is then bubbled through the cell. The CO2 reacts with the lithium carbonate, and depending on the reaction temperature attained, either solid carbon is deposited at the cathode or carbon monoxide is produced. This conversion of carbon dioxide into solid carbon is facilitated by the visible rays of the sun that drive the reaction, when the visible rays are converted to electricity through photovoltaic techniques.

Thus, STEP uses both the visible part of the sunlight and the thermal characteristic of it to capture and split atmospheric carbon dioxide into solidified carbon or carbon monoxide that may be constructively used for a variety of industrial applications. STEP process can be used to maximize the use of sun’s energy to form staple chemicals such as iron, bleach, aluminum, etc., and remove, convert and use carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas to form energetic carbon rich materials and hydrogen. This process also reduces the need to cool solar cells/panels, as the deleterious heat generated from the solar cells is directed to the reaction chamber as well, and is used as a secondary source of energy in the chemical conversion process.

Stage of Development

  • Thorough testing at laboratory pilot scale
  • Carbon capture and iron production demonstrated


  • Capturing CO2 industrially with an earlier unattained solar efficiency of 34%-50%; thus using solar energy with an efficiency as high as 50% to capture and prevent release of CO2 into the atmosphere.
  • Extracting iron from iron ores, like magnetite or hematite (Fe3O4 or Fe2O3) without releasing carbon dioxide into atmosphere.
  • Generating a variety of fuels like synthetic jet fuel and synthetic diesel, plastics, and medicine by using the CO generated in the process.
  • Generating a variety of metals and bleach.
  • Treatment of waste streams from a smokestack as STEP is immune to poisonous effects.


  • No atmospheric release of CO2
  • Reduction of existing atmospheric levels of CO2
  • Cost effective process
  • Fuel generation as side products, which may be used effectively in variety of other industrial applications.
  • Solidified carbon formed in the process
  • Industrial plants can be set up in new geographic locations, even close to urban centers or places with sunlight