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19th February 2020
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Price of progress

Posted 10/10/2012 by sevans

History teaches us a lot of lessons, so the saying goes. It is a thought that struck home on a trip last weekend to Ironbridge in Shropshire, regarded by many as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the site of the world’s first cast-iron bridge. Erected in 1779, the famous bridge weighs nearly 400 tons and was ‘fitted together jigsaw-like, dovetailed and wedged, without a single rivet or bolt,’ according to my fifth- or sixth-hand copy of Gary Hogg’s Museums of England. 


No doubt the early iron foundries – the remains of one are still visible from the banks of the River Severn downstream from the Iron Bridge – were horrible places to work: hot, hazardous and dirty. It is easy to dismiss the early industrialists as careless of their environmental responsibilities, to regard them as something of Neanderthals in their attitudes to health and safety.

For its time, however, the construction of the Iron Bridge represented a huge leap forward in iron-making compared with previous methods of extracting or smelting iron from its ore using charcoal – which involved chopping down forests. Abraham Darby’s process of coke smelting, patented in 1709, paved the way for the mass production of iron and brass. Before this, all iron and brass goods had to be individually cast.

Globally, we now produce around 2.4bn t of iron every year. Even today, however, the production of this important metal remains one of the most energy intensive and polluting of all industrial processes, as John Emsley pointed out in his lecture last month at SCI headquarters in London (Click for video). For every ton of iron produced, roughly half a ton of CO is released to the atmosphere.

Now, researchers at New Zealand company LanzaTech have found a way to capture this carbon monoxide from iron foundries and convert it, with the aid of specialised microbes, into something useful – ethanol for use as vehicle fuel. One plant in China is already retrofitted with the technology and, by the year 2050, Emsley predicts that every iron producer in the world will be using it. 

Finally, it appears that progress does not always have to be at the expense of the environment.

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy editor

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