Minnesota biochar and the future of making steel

March 2024

The University of Minnesota Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) in Duluth and Coleraine recently received a $2.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy! These funds will be used to develop biochar briquets or pellets to replace fossil fuel in electric arc furnace steelmaking. Decarbonizing steel production has been a holy grail dream for many years. We reached out to Brett Spigarelli and Tiffany Sprague from NRRI to learn a little more about the project.

Brett Spigarelli, Metallurgical Engineer

Brett, tell us a bit about biochar and how your career so far has led you to this project.Brett Spigarelli

Biochar is a really versatile material. What makes biochar so versatile is that the properties of it can be tuned for a desired application, such as metallurgy (which is the materials science and engineering that studies the physical and chemical behavior of metallic elements, their inter-metallic compounds, and their mixtures), soil amendment, and water treatment, to name a few. In this project, we are using biochar in a metallurgical application to replace coal in electric arc furnace steelmaking. We will be tuning the properties of the biochar largely through a process called pyrolysis, which is essentially heating biomass (in our case agricultural and forestry wastes) in an oxygen deficient atmosphere. By varying things like temperature and time of the pyrolysis process, you can alter the properties of the biocarbon. We will be doing a lot of research around what properties of biochar are most desirable for use as a coal replacement in the electric arc furnace.


I have had a lot of good fortune in my career that has led me to this project. I started out studying carbon dioxide capture and storage systems in graduate school. After that I went to work on an alternative ironmaking technology as a process development engineer. From there, I went on to work at a steel mill as a process engineer in charge of the electric arc furnace. My iron and steel work experiences had almost nothing to do with my background in carbon dioxide capture and storage, but they allowed me to develop a decent understanding of the role of carbon in iron and steelmaking. Ending up at NRRI is where good fortune really came into play. NRRI’s focus on collaboration between research groups allowed me to use my, seemingly random and unconnected, experiences to tackle the decarbonization opportunity in front of us today.


What does success look like to you for this project specifically and the steel industry as a whole? 

Good question. For me specifically, success is all about how this team grows during the project. Success looks like team members developing new skills, relationships, and the confidence to help them succeed in whatever challenges the future might present. This project has a lot of moving parts, so it has presented researchers with a lot of opportunities to get out of their comfort zone a little to try something new. We are already seeing a lot of researchers step up into leadership and support roles that, if not for this project, they may not have had the opportunity to do. I’m so grateful for the incredible group of people participating in this project.


The development of a feasible fossil coal substitute would be a success for the steel industry. Built into that success is the goal that not only does the coal substitute help reduce carbon intensity, but it also helps to improve process efficiencies over traditional fossil coals.

The University of Minnesota Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth and Coleraine.

The University of Minnesota Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth and Coleraine. 

White man wearing a neon yellow vest and white hard hat handling equipment in a manufacturing-style facility.

Conducting biochar research and production.

White hands holding two piles of darky earthy material. One hand holds gray pelletes and the second holds a pile of black earth.

Biochar samples. 

Tiffany Sprague, Organizational Development Manager

Tiffany, this DOE grant also includes funds for a pretty unique internship program around STEM research activities. How do you see engagement and programming working out with rural college students in northern Minnesota?Tiffany Sprague

While part of the University, meaning we are afforded the opportunity to mentor students and encourage the next generation of STEM careers, opportunities to engage college students in the research taking place at our Coleraine facility has always been a challenge due to its location. And we also know it can be challenging for college students living in northern Minnesota to have meaningful early career opportunities and gain hands-on experience in a variety of STEM fields. So we hope to play a positive role in closing that gap by providing an internship opportunity for 2-4 college students living in rural northern Minnesota and working on this project alongside scientists and technicians at our Coleraine facility. I should mention these internships will be paid, and at a competitive wage. 

Part of the development of this internship program includes being very intentional in fostering the mentor-mentee relationship between our Coleraine staff and the students, providing training and continual support for both staff and students. Our goal is to provide a valuable early career experience for the interns, while also forming the foundation for a program that could continue to support interns on future NRRI projects. 

This is our first time trialing such a program, so I suspect there will be many lessons learned along the way - for both the students and our researchers. We are very early in the process, so our next step is to engage faculty and departments at our local colleges to better understand the needs of their students and how our program could help to support their budding scientists. It is very important for us to listen to the needs and gaps our rural community colleges face when it comes to STEM, rather than assume we know what is best for our rural MN college students. Patience and grace are always good starting points when forming a new project, and those two words are going to be our grounding and guiding principles over the next two years as we form this internship process. 

Internally, we are very focused on creating a culture of belonging for all staff and collaborators at NRRI, and that emphasis will be expanded to our interns as well through trainings, mentorship and continual feedback and evaluation of the supervisor-intern relationship.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy...

more than 1 billion tons of steel are produced every year, being widely used in buildings, transportation, electrical appliances, and energy technologies. Iron and steel manufacturing in the United States produces 7% of industrial emissions.

Steelmaking is energy- and emissions-intensive, requiring high process temperatures and a source of carbon to drive reactions. Generating heat and the chemical reactions that occur during steelmaking processes both produce significant emissions.

Iron and Minerals of the Future

Learn more about new steelmaking practices NRRI is exploring to increase efficiency, reduce energy and water consumption, and prevent environmental contamination.

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