The steel industry is going through a wrenching transition. Large, integrated producers--who make steel from iron ore with blast furnaces and basic oxygen furnaces--are faced with excess capacity, lower profit margins, stiff environmental regulations, and loss of market share. Meanwhile, electric steel producers--who use arc furnaces to make steel primarily from scrap--have seen their share of U.S. raw steel production rise to nearly 40% as they have steadily lowered costs and penetrated new markets. As a result of the advantages of technical change, even the well-established integrated producers are planning to shift more of their production to electric steelmaking.
Now a variety of new technologies promise to tip the balance even further. The most important of these innovations, thin-slab casting, is opening the sheet steel market to electric arc furnace (EAF) steelmakers for the first time. Other technologies are enabling them to make higher-quality products, reduce environmental impacts, and increase overall efficiency.
Electric utilities have a major stake in all this. Steelmaking as a whole accounts for about 4.5% of all industrial power sales by utilities, or some 20 billion kWh. And while the total amount of energy needed to make a ton of steel has steadily declined over recent years, the portion of energy supplied in the form of electricity continues to rise. By fostering the development and transfer of advanced, electricity-based technologies, utilities can help sustain important industrial customers in their increasingly competitive global markets.
Since 1984, EPRI's Center for Materials Production (CMP) has been a focal point for research and development related to the use of electricity in steelmaking. Located at the Carnegie Mellon Research Institute of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, CMP has worked closely with both integrated and electric steel producers on a wide range of technologies. The center is now seeking ways to collaborate even more closely with individual steel companies as the pace of technological innovation accelerates.
"The opportunities ahead are tremendous," declares Gene Eckhart, manager of materials production and fabrication in EPRI's Industrial Program. "As competition heats up and technological advantage becomes even more important, CMP's value and influence will continue to increase. We are already working on a broad portfolio of research that can make electric steelmakers more productive and help the whole steel industry address critical environmental issues. We are also looking for new ways to cooperate with key industry players on projects of particular interest to them."
The thin-slab revolution
Until about 20 years ago, most steel was produced in integrated, ore-based facilities, where it was generally cast into ingots after leaving the furnace. These ingots then had to be reheated before they could be shaped into semifinished products, such as billets or slabs. The development of continuous casting--producing billets or slabs of steel directly from the furnace--eliminated the need to cast and reheat ingots. But continuous casting did more than reduce the energy loss and material handling costs associated with ingots; it also enabled small scrap-melting shops to compete with the integrated mills in producing steel bar and rod products for use in construction.
As casting technology continued to improve, EAF steelmakers also began to compete successfully in the production of structural steel, such as I beams for steel frame buildings. The most recent casting technology development is the thin-slab caster, which produces slabs about 2 inches thick instead of the usual …