The gargantuan, century-old U.S. Steel mills of Gary, Indiana, fueled the rise of smokestack America in the 20th century, their blast furnaces forging heavy metal for millions of carbon-spewing cars.

Now, 30 miles away at Valparaiso University, scientists have built a solar-powered, high-tech furnace to test technologies they hope one day will refine lightweight, low-carbon magnesium for automotive components as well as produce greenhouse gas-free hydrogen to power the vehicles.

“Our goal is to produce magnesium with 90 percent less fossil fuel energy and 93 percent less carbon emissions,” says Scott Duncan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Valparaiso. His team won a $2.3 million Department of Energy grant to develop the process. The National Science Foundation awarded Valparaiso $300,000 for the hydrogen project.

The technologies remain in their infancy but are a sign that renewable energy is moving beyond generating electricity to replacing fossil fuels in energy-intensive manufacturing.

Automakers, for instance, are under the gun to comply with federal fuel economy regulations that require their fleets to achieve an average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. One way to meet that mandate is to build lighter vehicles. (Thus Chrysler is backing the Valparaiso solar magnesium effort.) Magnesium, for instance, is about 35 percent lighter than aluminum, notes Duncan. The catch: It’s energy-and-carbon intensive to produce and more than two-thirds of magnesium alloy currently is made in China.

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