Steelmaking is the process of producing steel from iron ore and/or scrap. In steelmaking, impurities such as nitrogen, silicon, phosphorus, sulfur and excess carbon (the most important impurity) are removed from the sourced iron, and alloying elements such as manganese, nickel, chromium, carbon and vanadium are added to produce different grades of steel. Limiting dissolved gases such as nitrogen and oxygen and entrained impurities (termed "inclusions") in the steel is also important to ensure the quality of the products cast from the liquid steel.
Steelmaking has existed for millennia, but it was not commercialized on a massive scale until the late 14th century. An ancient process of steelmaking was the crucible process. In the 1850s and 1860s, the Bessemer process and the Siemens-Martin process turned steelmaking into a heavy industry. Today there are two major commercial processes for making steel, namely basic oxygen steelmaking, which has liquid pig-iron from the blast furnace and scrap steel as the main feed materials, and electric arc furnace (EAF) steelmaking, which uses scrap steel or direct reduced iron (DRI) as the main feed materials. Oxygen steelmaking is fueled predominantly by the exothermic nature of the reactions inside the vessel; in contrast, in EAF steelmaking, electrical energy is used to melt the solid scrap and/or DRI materials. In recent times, EAF steelmaking technology has evolved closer to oxygen steelmaking as more chemical energy is introduced into the process.
Steelmaking is one of the most carbon emission intensive industries in the world. As of 2020[update], steelmaking is estimated to be responsible for 7 to 9 per cent of all direct fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions. In order to mitigate global warming, the industry will need to find reductions in emissions. In 2020, McKinsey identified a number of technologies for decarbonization including hydrogen usage, carbon capture and reuse, and maximizing use of electric arc furnaces powered by clean energy.
Steelmaking has played a crucial role in the development of ancient, medieval, and modern technological societies. Early processes of steel making were made during the classical era in Ancient Iran, Ancient China, India, and Rome but the process of ancient steelmaking was lost in the West after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE.
Cast iron is a hard, brittle material that is difficult to work, whereas steel is malleable, relatively easily formed and a versatile material. For much of human history, steel has only been made in small quantities. Since the invention of the Bessemer process in the 19th century and subsequent technological developments in injection technology and process control, mass production of steel has become an integral part of the global economy and a key indicator of modern technological development. The earliest means of producing steel was in a bloomery.
Early modern methods of producing steel were often labour-intensive and highly skilled arts. See:
- finery forge, in which the German finery process could be managed to produce steel.
- blister steel and crucible steel.
An important aspect of the Industrial Revolution was the development of large-scale methods of producing forgeable metal (bar iron or steel). The puddling furnace was initially a means of producing wrought iron but was later applied to steel production.
The real revolution in modern steelmaking only began at the end of the 1850s when the Bessemer process became the first successful method of steelmaking in high quantity followed by the open-hearth furnace.
Modern steelmaking processes can be divided into two categories: primary and secondary.
Primary steelmaking involves converting liquid iron from a blast furnace and steel scrap into steel via basic oxygen steelmaking, or melting scrap steel or direct reduced iron (DRI) in an electric arc furnace.
Secondary steelmaking involves refining of the crude steel before casting and the various operations are normally carried out in ladles. In secondary metallurgy, alloying agents are added, dissolved gases in the steel are lowered, and inclusions are removed or altered chemically to ensure that high-quality steel is produced after casting.
Basic oxygen steelmaking is a method of primary steelmaking in which carbon-rich molten pig iron is converted into steel. Blowing oxygen through molten pig iron lowers the carbon content of the alloy and changes it into steel. The process is known as basic due to the chemical nature of the refractories—calcium oxide and magnesium oxide—that line the vessel to withstand the high temperature and corrosive nature of the molten metal and slag in the vessel. The slag chemistry of the process is also controlled to ensure that impurities such as silicon and phosphorus are removed from the metal.
The process was developed in 1948 by Robert Durrer, using a refinement of the Bessemer converter where blowing of air is replaced with blowing oxygen. It reduced the capital cost of the plants and the time of smelting, and increased labor productivity. Between 1920 and 2000, labour requirements in the industry decreased by a factor of 1000, from more than 3 man-hours per tonne to just 0.003 man-hours. The vast majority of steel manufactured in the world is produced using the basic oxygen furnace; in 2011, it accounted for 70% of global steel output. Modern furnaces will take a charge of iron of up to 350 tons and convert it into steel in less than 40 minutes compared to 10–12 hours in an open hearth furnace.
Electric arc furnace steelmaking is the manufacture of steel from scrap or direct reduced iron melted by electric arcs. In an electric arc furnace, a batch of steel ("heat") may be started by loading scrap or direct reduced iron into the furnace, sometimes with a "hot heel" (molten steel from a previous heat). Gas burners may be used to assist with the melt down of the scrap pile in the furnace. As in basic oxygen steelmaking, fluxes are also added to protect the lining of the vessel and help improve the removal of impurities. Electric arc furnace steelmaking typically uses furnaces of capacity around 100 tonnes that produce steel every 40 to 50 minutes for further processing.
Secondary steelmaking is most commonly performed in ladles. Some of the operations performed in ladles include de-oxidation (or "killing"), vacuum degassing, alloy addition, inclusion removal, inclusion chemistry modification, de-sulphurisation, and homogenisation. It is now common to perform ladle metallurgical operations in gas-stirred ladles with electric arc heating in the lid of the furnace. Tight control of ladle metallurgy is associated with producing high grades of steel in which the tolerances in chemistry and consistency are narrow.
In HIsarna ironmaking process, iron ore is processed almost directly into liquid iron or hot metal. The process is based around a type of blast furnace called a cyclone converter furnace, which makes it possible to skip the process of manufacturing pig iron pellets that is necessary for the basic oxygen steelmaking process. Without the necessity of this preparatory step, the HIsarna process is more energy-efficient and has a lower carbon footprint than traditional steelmaking processes.
Carbon dioxide emissions
As of 2020[update], steelmaking is estimated to be responsible for 7 to 9 per cent of all direct fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions. Making 1 ton of steel produces about 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide.
The bulk of the emissions from making steel results from the industrial process in which coal is used as the source of carbon that removes oxygen from iron ore in the following chemical reaction, which occurs in a blast furnace:
Fe2O3(s) + 3 CO(g) → 2 Fe(s) + 3 CO2(g)
To make pure steel, iron and carbon are needed. On its own, iron is not very strong, but a low concentration of carbon - less than 1 percent, depending on the kind of steel, gives the steel its important properties. The carbon in steel is obtained from coal and the iron from iron ore. However, iron ore is a mixture of iron and oxygen, and other trace elements. To make steel, the iron needs to be separated from the oxygen and a tiny amount of carbon needs to added. Both are accomplished by melting the iron ore at a very high temperature (1,700 degrees Celsius or over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit) in the presence of oxygen (from the air) and a type of coal called coke. At those temperatures, the iron ore releases its oxygen, which is carried away by the carbon from the coke in the form of carbon dioxide.
Fe2O3(s) + 3 CO(g) → 2 Fe(s) + 3 CO2(g)
The reaction occurs due to the lower (favorable) energy state of carbon dioxide compared to iron oxide, and the high temperatures are needed to achieve the activation energy for this reaction. A small amount of carbon bonds with the iron, forming pig iron, which is an intermediary before steel, as it has carbon content that is too high - around 4%.
To reduce the carbon content in pig iron and obtain the desired carbon content of steel, the pig iron is re-melted and oxygen is blown through in a process called basic oxygen steelmaking, which occurs in a ladle. In this step, the oxygen binds with the undesired carbon, carrying it away in the form of carbon dioxide gas, an additional source of emissions. After this step, the carbon content in the pig iron is lowered sufficiently and steel is obtained.
CaCO3(s) → CaO(s) + CO2(g)
The carbon in the limestone is therefore released as carbon dioxide, making it an additional source of emissions. The calcium oxide acts as a chemical flux, removes impurities in the form of slag. For example, the calcium oxide can react to remove silicon oxide impurities:
SiO2 + CaO → CaSiO3
This use of limestone to provide a flux occurs both in the blast furnace (to obtain pig iron) and in the basic oxygen steel making (to obtain steel).
Further carbon dioxide emissions result from the hot blast, which is used to increase the heat of the blast furnace. The hot blast pumps hot air into the blast furnace where the iron ore is reduced to pig iron, helping to achieve the high activation energy. The hot blast temperature can be from 900 °C to 1300 °C (1600 °F to 2300 °F) depending on the stove design and condition. Oil, tar, natural gas, powdered coal and oxygen can also be injected into the furnace to combine with the coke to release additional energy and increase the percentage of reducing gases present, increasing productivity. If the air in the hot blast is heated by burning fossil fuels, which often is the case, this is an additional source of carbon dioxide emissions.
- History of the steel industry (1850–1970)
- History of the steel industry (1970–present)
- Argon oxygen decarburization
- Flodin process
- Steel mill
- Carbon additive
- Metallurgical coal
- Blast furnace
- Basic oxygen steelmaking
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- The short film The Drama of Steel (1946) is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- U.S. Steel Gary Works Photograph Collection, 1906–1971
- "Steel For The Tools For Victory" , December 1943, Popular Science large detailed article with numerous illustrations and cutaways on the modern basics of making steel