How heat could solve climate problems

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While I can’t change the weather (not yet, anyway), it’s wild to think about just how much control many of us have over the temperature in most areas of our lives. We can set the thermostat to precisely 72 °F, take hot showers, and even step into a warm car on a cold day.

But there’s another arena where our mastery of temperature control is less visible, but arguably even more important: the manufacturing processes that make the building blocks of our lives. Having heat on demand is necessary for making … pretty much everything.

The problem is, temperature control in industry has historically relied on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, and it’s a bit of a climate nightmare: industrial heat alone is responsible for about 20% of emissions globally. A growing number of folks are looking for new ways to fiddle with industrial thermostats, so let’s take a look at what technologies are on the table and where we go from here.

Heating up

When I say heat is used everywhere in industry and manufacturing, I mean everywhere. But what that looks like can vary pretty widely.

Some industries, like food and paper-making, require relatively low temperatures. For example, extending milk’s shelf life by killing off harmful bugs via pasteurization requires getting it to temperatures under 100 °C (212 °F). On the other hand, making steel can require getting up to around 1,500 °C (2,700 °F) to melt iron and kick off chemical reactions that strengthen the metal.

In total, three-quarters of all energy used by industrial processes is in the form of heat, and only one-quarter is electricity. So while many of us are focused on how to clean up the electrical grid that powers our homes and an increasing number of our vehicles, the industry will have an even bigger job ahead trying to address its heat demand.

In September 2022, the US Department of Energy announced a program called the Industrial Heat Shotaimed at developing technologies for industrial heat that cut emissions at least 85% by 2035.

What I think is really interesting here is that because different industries need vastly different ranges of heat, we could see the development of a whole bunch of technologies.

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