“Did you know that microwaves will save the world?” my LinkedIn feed asked me recently. I’ll confess I didn’t, but I have to give the original poster, Erin Bobicki, the benefit of the doubt. There is no one in my professional circle better placed to speak on the power of microwaves than Bobicki, an associate professor in the chemical and materials engineering department of the University of Alberta. Her concept of using electro-magnetic radiation to precondition and sort ore is in the running for the $5 million Crush It! Challenge prize. The grant will be awarded to one of six finalists who proposed novel approaches to improve upon the notoriously inefficient comminution stage of mineral processing. Hers is not the only proposal that puts microwaves to work. CIM Magazine talked to Bobicki and Tracy Holmes of Jenike & Johanson, also a finalist in the competition and proponent of using microwaves for more efficient mineral liberation, about the opportunities such an efficient heat source present (p. 26). Had the pandemic not knocked things off track, we would have had news of a Crush It! winner by now. 

The delay has not deterred Bobicki, whose social media post celebrating microwaves shared news of a different project she has been working on. The hydrogen company for which she is a technical director had achieved an important milestone: its bench-scale production process that improves on the common method of having methane reacted with steam to generate hydrogen had been validated by a team of researchers at the University of Toronto. The widely used steam-methane reforming process creates a molecule of carbon dioxide for every four molecules of hydrogen. It’s a carbon heavy way to create a “clean” fuel. This novel method tested in the lab uses microwave energy to indirectly heat methane to produce hydrogen. The resulting carbon is sequestered as a solid, and less energy is required in the process.

“I think,” said Bobicki in the news release, “these results demonstrate the potential for microwave energy to play a significant role in the decarbonization of hydrocarbon fuels.”

At the end of the week where both the CIM Magazine story on efficient comminution and the hydrogen news crossed my desk, our news editor Matthew Parizot proposed a story for our weekly news recap that added a little more heat to the microwave story. 

Rio Tinto had shared that it had taken an innovative steel-making process from the lab to the pilot plant stage. Working with a research team that includes members of the University of Nottingham’s Microwave Process Engineering Group, Rio Tinto was advancing a process that blends biomass with iron ore and, with the combined heat from the release of gas from the biomass and microwaves, yields metallic iron.

The chief executive of the company’s iron ore division explained that “more than 70 per cent of Rio Tinto’s Scope 3 emissions are generated as customers process our iron ore into steel, which is critical for urbanization and infrastructure development as the world’s economies decarbonize. So, while it’s still early days and there is a lot more research and other work to do, we are keen to explore further development of this technology.”

I had to share this latest bit of news with Bobicki, who promptly responded: “When I said microwaves can save the world, I meant it. It’s so exciting to see the uptake of microwave technology in the natural resource sector. It is a very efficient way to transmit energy to materials.”