This process could give the steel industry the same benefits that a microwave gives a family, says Jiann-Yang Hwang, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at the Houghton, Mich., school. "With a blast furnace, most of the heat escapes," says Hwang. "It's similar to the stove in your home, where most of the heat warms the kitchen. It's inefficient. In our microwave, iron oxides can be heated to 1,000°C in 1 minute, compared to hours for conventional heating," he adds.

Also, microwave technology could cut steel production costs in half, according to Hwang. In addition to energy savings, the process uses coal, eliminating high-cost coke. The manufacturing process is simple, cutting the number of steelmaking steps in half. The environment would benefit as well, with significant reductions in greenhouse gases and sulfur-dioxide emissions.