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Iron and Steel Processing

Discussed by Karlyn Glenne D. Cutamora


Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the material wealth and power of a nation has
depended largely upon its ability to make steel. During the nineteenth century, Britain was
prominent among steel-producing nations, and, towards the end of Victorian era, was
manufacturing a great proportion of the worlds steel. But, more recently, rapid technological
developments in the Far East has meant that Japan is currently the worlds premier steel
producer followed by the Peoples Republic of China and the USA, with Russia, Germany
and the Korean Republic some way behind.

Think of the greatest structures of the 19th centurythe Eiffel Tower, the Capitol, the Statue
of Libertyand you'll be thinking of iron. The fourth most common element in Earth's crust,
iron has been in widespread use now for about 6000 years. Hugely versatile, and one of the
strongest and cheapest metals, it became an important building block of the Industrial
Revolution, but it's also an essential element in plant and animal life. Combined with varying
(but tiny) amounts of carbon, iron makes a much stronger material called steel, used in a
huge range of human-made objects, from cutlery to warships, skyscrapers, and space
rockets. Let's take a closer look at these two superb materials and find out what makes them
so popular!

What is iron like?

You might think of iron as a hard, strong metal tough enough to

support bridges and buildings, but that's not pure iron. What you're thinking of is alloys of
iron combined with carbon and other elements. Pure iron is a different matter altogether.
Consider its physical properties (how it behaves by itself) and its chemical properties (how it
combines and reacts with other elements and compounds).

Physical properties

Pure iron is a silvery-white metal that's easy to work and shape and it's just soft enough to
cut through (with quite a bit of difficulty) using a knife. You can hammer iron into sheets and
draw it into wires. Like most metals, iron conducts electricity and heat very well and it's very
easy to magnetize.
Chemical properties

The reason we so rarely see pure iron is that it combines readily with oxygen. Indeed, iron's
major drawback as a construction material is that it reacts with moist air (in a process
called corrosion) to form the flaky, reddish-brown oxide we call rust. Iron reacts in lots of
other ways toowith elements ranging from carbon, sulfur, and silicon to halogens such as

Broadly, iron's compounds can be divided into two groups known as ferrous and ferric (the
old names) or iron (II) and iron (III); you can always substitute "iron (II)" for "ferrous" and
"iron(III)" for "ferric" in compound names.

In iron (II) compounds, iron has a valency (chemical combining ability) of +2.
Examples include iron(II) oxide (FeO), a pigment (coloring chemical); iron (II) chloride
(FeCl2), used in medicine as "tincture of iron"; and an important dyeing chemical
called iron (II) sulfate (FeSO4).
In iron (III) compounds, iron's valency is +3. Examples include iron (III) oxide (Fe2O3),
used as the magnetic material in things like cassette tapes and computer hard
drives and also as a paint pigment; and iron (III) chloride (FeCl3), used to
manufacture many industrial chemicals.
Sometimes iron (II) and iron (III) are present in the same compound. A paint pigment
called Prussian blue is actually a complex compound of iron (II), iron (III), and
cyanide with the chemical formula Fe4[Fe(CN)6]3.

Where does iron come from?

Iron is the second most common metal in Earth's crust, after aluminum, but because it reacts
so readily with oxygen it's never mined in its pure form (though meteorites are occasionally
discovered that contain samples of pure iron). Like aluminum, most iron "locked" inside
Earth exists in the form of oxides (compounds of iron and oxygen). Iron oxides exist in seven
main ores (raw, rocky minerals mined from Earth):

Hematite (the most plentiful)

Limonite (also called brown ore or bog iron)
Magnetite (black ore; the magnetic type of iron oxide, also called lodestone),
Taconite (a combination of hematite and magnetite).
Different ores contain different amounts of iron. Hematite and magnetite have about 70
percent iron, limonite has about 60 percent, and pyrite and siderite have 50 percent, while
taconite has only 30 percent. Using a combination of deep mining (under the ground) and
opencast mining (on the surface), the world produces approximately 1000 million tons of iron
ore each year, with China responsible for just over half of it.

Which countries produce the world's iron? Chart shows estimated figures for pig iron for
2014. Source: US Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2015.


Pure iron is too soft and reactive to be of much real use, so most of the "iron" we tend to use
for everyday purposes is actually in the form of iron alloys: iron mixed with other elements
(especially carbon) to make stronger, more resilient forms of the metal including steel.
Broadly speaking, steel is an alloy of iron that contains up to about 2 percent carbon, while
other forms of iron contain about 24 percent carbon. In fact, there are thousands of different
kinds of iron and steel, all containing slightly different amounts of other alloying elements.
Pig iron

Basic raw iron is called pig iron because it's produced in the form of chunky molded blocks
known as pigs. Pig iron is made by heating an iron ore (rich in iron oxide) in a blast furnace:
an enormous industrial fireplace, shaped like a cylinder, into which huge drafts of hot air are
introduced in regular "blasts". Blast furnaces are often spectacularly huge: some are 30
60m (100200ft) high, hold dozens of trucks worth of raw materials, and often operate
continuously for years at a time without being switched off or cooled down. Inside the
furnace, the iron ore reacts chemically with coke (a carbon-rich form of coal) and limestone.
The coke "steals" the oxygen from the iron oxide (in a chemical process called reduction),
leaving behind a relatively pure liquid iron, while the limestone helps to remove the other
parts of the rocky ore (including clay, sand, and small stones), which form a waste slurry
known as slag. The iron made in a blast furnace is an alloy containing about 9095 percent
iron, 34 percent carbon, and traces of other elements such as silicon, manganese, and
phosphorus, depending on the ore used. Pig iron is much harder than 100 percent pure iron,
but still too weak for most everyday purposes.

Cast iron

Cast iron is simply liquid iron that has been cast: poured into a mold and allowed to cool and
harden to form a finished structural shape, such as a pipe, a gear, or a big girder for an
iron bridge. Pig iron is actually a very basic form of cast iron, but it's molded only very
crudely because it's typically melted down to make steel. The high carbon content of cast
iron (the same as pig ironroughly 34 percent) makes it extremely hard and brittle: large
crystals of carbon embedded in cast iron stop the crystals of iron from moving about. Cast
iron has two big drawbacks: first, because it's hard and brittle, it's virtually impossible to
shape, even when heated; second, it rusts relatively easily. It's worth noting that there are
actually several different types of cast iron, including white and gray cast irons (named for
the coloring of the finished product caused by the way the carbon inside it behaves).

Wrought iron

Cast iron assumes its finished shape the moment the liquid iron alloy cools down in the
mold. Wrought iron is a very different material made by mixing liquid iron with some slag.
The result is an iron alloy with a much lower carbon content. Wrought iron is softer than cast
iron and much less tough, so you can heat it up to shape it relatively easily, and it's also
much less prone to rusting. However, relatively little wrought iron is now produced
commercially, since most of the objects originally produced from it are now made from steel,
which is both cheaper and generally of more consistent quality. Wrought iron is what people
used to use before they really mastered making steel in large quantities in the mid-19th

Strictly speaking, steel is just another type of iron alloy, but it has much lower carbon content
than cast and wrought iron and other metals are often added to give it extra properties. Steel
is such an amazingly useful material that we tend to talk about it as though it were a metal in
its own righta kind of sleeker, more modern "son of iron" that's taken over the family firm!
It's important to remember two things, however. First, steel is still essentially (and
overwhelmingly) made from iron. Second, there are literally thousands of different types of
steel, many of them precisely designed by materials scientists to perform a particular job
under very exacting conditions. When we talk about "steel", we usually mean "steels";
broadly speaking, steels fall into four groups: carbon steels, alloy steels, tool steels, and
stainless steels. These names can be confusing, because all alloy steels contain carbon (as
do all other steels), all carbon steels are also alloys, and both tool steels and stainless steels
are alloys too.

Carbon steels

The vast majority of steel produced each day (around 8090 percent) is what we call carbon
steel, though it contains only a tiny amount of carbonsometimes much less than 1 percent.
In other words, carbon steel is just basic, ordinary steel. Steels with about 12 percent
carbon are called (not surprisingly) high-carbon steels and, like cast-iron, they tend to be
hard and brittle; steels with less than 1 percent carbon are known as low-carbon steels and
like wrought iron, are softer and easier to shape. A huge range of different everyday items
are made carbon steels, from car bodies and warship hulls to steel cans and engine parts.

Alloy steels

As well as iron and carbon, alloy steels contain one or more other elements, such
as chromium, copper, manganese, nickel, silicon, or vanadium. In alloy steels, it's these
extra elements that make the difference and provide some important additional feature or
improved property compared to ordinary carbon steels. Alloy steels are generally stronger,
harder, tougher, and more durable than carbon steels.

Tool steels

Tool steels are especially hard alloy steels used to make tools, dies, and machine parts.
They're made from iron and carbon with added elements such as nickel, molybdenum,
or tungsten to give extra hardness and resistance to wear. Tool steels are also toughened
up by a process called tempering, in which steel is first heated to a high temperature, then
cooled very quickly, then heated again to a lower temperature.
Stainless steels

The steel you probably see most often is stainless steelused in household cutlery,
scissors, and medical instruments. Stainless steels contain a high proportion of chromium
and nickel, are very resistant to corrosion and other chemical reactions, and are easy to
clean, polish, and sterilize.

The compound inside iron and steel may include some of the following:

Ferrite: Relatively pure iron with tiny amounts of carbon that is soft and easy to
shape. Gives iron its magnetic property.
Cementite (iron carbide): Iron with much more carbon (and sometimes other
elements) that is very hard and brittle. Essentially behaves like a ceramic material.
Graphite: Pure carbon crystals, which make iron alloys hard and brittle.
Pearlite: A mixture made of alternate layers of ferrite and cementite that looks like
mother of pearl under a microscope (hence the name "pearlite").
Austenite: An alloy of iron and carbon present in steel heated to high temperatures.
Martensite: Similar to ferrite but much harder.

FACTS AND FIGURES: Steel product lines locally produced

Semi-finished products: billets

Finished long products:
o Reinforcing steel bars (all sizes)
o Angle bars 80mm and below
o Light sections, channels and shapes
o Steel wires
o Steel purlins
Finished flat products:
o Hot dipped galvanized sheets
o Zn-Al coated sheets
o Welded black iron pipes and tubes
o Welded galvanized pipes and tubes
o Pre-painted galvanized / Zn-Al coated coils and sheets
o Pre-painted galvanized iron


(Higgins, 2006)