Technical advances that emerged from government-funded space research have helped further sustainable innovations of many kinds, as we wrote recently in Space and Spinoff Innovation. Human ingenuity using existing resources, such as basic tools and materials, often also plays a key role in solving complex problems. The Apollo 13 moon mission is famously known for the emergency use of materials on hand – duct tape and various surplus materials in the spacecraft – to allow the crew to safely return to Earth.
Concern over the impacts of industrial processes on our climate is increasing. Businesses large and small are continually negotiating with regulators, consumers, and investors to find effective yet financially viable ways to reduce the destructive use of carbon, which is necessary to protect and sustain human life and health. In some ways, the tension and uncertainty about whether we will find adequate solutions fast enough mimics the cinematic re-enactment of Apollo 13’s touch-and-go return to Earth.
Steel will be required for future efforts to build sustainable infrastructure including wind turbines and solar panels. The steel industry currently produces fully 7% of annual carbon emissions globally, and that needs to shrink, not grow further. Conventional steel production processes rely on coking coal, the primary source of carbon in steelmaking. This method removes oxygen from iron ore, producing huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the process. Steel purchasers and environmentally-minded investors are increasingly adamant that the industry develop cleaner methods. Some companies are retaining existing technology and instead trying to achieve lower rates of carbon emissions via increased scale. Alternately, other companies are creating new approaches to low-carbon or no-carbon steel using everyday materials and inputs.
Two state-owned Swedish companies are working to develop new technology that uses fossil-free electricity and hydrogen to process ore, with hydrogen as an input to remove oxygen creating water as a cleaner byproduct. Mining and minerals company LKAB controls iron mining in northern Sweden, and energy company Vattenfall, one of Europe’s largest producers and retailers of electricity and heat, sells into various European markets including Germany.
Another innovative effort to eliminate coke from steel production is being made by the startup company Boston Metal. They have developed a method to produce low-carbon or no-carbon steel using electricity to melt the iron ore, and are pushing forward to scale the technology for use in traditional steelmaking. Investors in their effort include Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal SA, the second-largest steel producer in the world, as well as Australia-based BHP Group, the world’s largest mining company.
Bringing Space Technology Down to Earth
Transformation of industrial processes such as steel production is key to slowing the growth and eventually decreasing the pace of carbon emissions. Simultaneously, technical innovation and creative use of common resources are needed to improve consumer-oriented industries such as agriculture and healthcare. Space research has made a contribution in these areas through the development of measurement technologies that have allowed for innovation and improvement.
Using existing water sources more efficiently is essential for our continued ability to produce sufficient healthy food. Rainfall assessments via remote sensing satellites allow more effective use of existing irrigation systems. These same satellites provide key data to monitor snow cover, crop development, and plant disease outbreaks. Additionally, NASA’s research on controlled environment systems to grow plants at the International Space Station led to today’s soil-free vertical farming sector – using light bulbs to encourage plant growth.
Medical innovation has been supported by various research efforts originally focused on understanding space and our ability to survive outside the Earth’s atmosphere. That research also helps us survive and thrive more effectively right here on our home planet. Medical technology is now commonly used for angioplasty, cancer cell assessment, and blood analysis using NASA-developed laser, digital imaging, and near-infrared technology.
Investing in Innovation
The conversation among companies, investors, and researchers to push for innovation while retaining profitability is an active one. The back and forth of technical innovation and practical creativity pushes us toward new, better, and, safer technologies. Companies such as ArcelorMittal and BHP Group are not “green” companies, yet their efforts are an essential part of the larger project to improve the environmental impact of our energy infrastructure. The network of established companies, environmental regulators, and active investors are all stakeholders in establishing broad-based agreements on the need for continued change, and – similar to Apollo 13 – this often means using available resources in new and innovative ways.
 Joe Deaux, “Steel CEO Who Fights with Goldman Takes on Industry Icon,” Bloomberg, August 14, 2023.
 Vattenfall is also known for forcing the Soviet government to publicly reveal the Chernobyl disaster. The radiation monitors at Vattenfall’s Forsmark nuclear plant was the first outside the Soviet Union to detect the elevated radiation levels from the Chernobyl reactor explosion in 1986.
 Joe Deaux and Akshat Rathi, ”Boston Metal Notches $262 Million Funding Round for Clean Steel,” Bloomberg, September 6, 2023.
About Kate Campbell King, CFP®
Kate Campbell King is the Founding Partner and Chief Investment Officer at North Berkeley Wealth Management. Kate provides clients with a unique approach to their financial decision-making.
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