Making Steel to Meet Demand. Industrial Contamination

To make a Turbine, a modern renewable technology, we need steel (71-79% of total turbine mass); fiberglass, resin or plastic (11-16%); iron or cast iron (5- 17%); copper (1%); and aluminium (0-2%). So to reduce the use of coal to provide energy, we build turbines as a solution. Let us look at the use of Iron and Steel, major components of building a turbine.

Iron

The Iron Age began around 4000 years ago, between 1200 BC and 600 BC following the Bronze Age and Stone Age. It didn’t happen at the same time globally of course.  Iron smelting was first developed by the Hittites and Africans in Termit, Niger around 1500 B.C. Improved iron working from the Hittites became wide spread by 1200 B.C. Metal making secrets were carefully guarded by the Hittites and the civilizations in Turkey, Iran and Mesopotamia. Iron could not be shaped by cold hammering (like bronze), it had to be constantly reheated and hammered. The best iron has traces of nickel mixed in with it. About 1400 B.C., the Chalbyes, a subject tribe of the Hitittes invented the cementation process to make iron stronger. The iron was hammered and heated in contact with charcoal. The carbon absorbed from the charcoal made the iron harder and stronger. The smelting temperature was increased by using more sophisticated bellows.

Heather Pringle wrote in a 2009 article in Science: “Controversial findings from a French team working at the site of boui in the Central African Republic challenge the diffusion model. Artifacts there suggest that sub-Saharan Africans were making iron by at least 2000 B.C.E. and possibly much earlier–well before Middle Easterners, says team member Philippe Fluzin, an archaeometallurgist at the University of Technology of Belfort-Montbliard in Belfort, France. The team unearthed a blacksmith’s forge and copious iron artifacts, including pieces of iron bloom and two needles, as they describe in a recent monograph, Les Ateliers d’boui, published in Paris. “Effectively, the oldest known sites for iron metallurgy are in Africa,” Fluzin says. Some researchers are impressed, particularly by a cluster of consistent radiocarbon dates. Others, however, raise serious questions about the new claims. [Source: Heather Pringle, Science, January 9, 2009]

Gradually iron ore was mined in many parts of the world. Today we create casts to mold iron into products for making things like manhole covers, cast iron pipes, valves and pump bodies in the water industry, guttering and drainpipes, cylinder blocks in car engines, Aga-type cookers, and very expensive and very heavy cookware.

An explanation of uses of iron is here.

Wrought Iron is iron that has been heated and then worked with tools.

Wrought iron worker

Cast Iron is iron that has been melted, poured into a mold, and allowed to solidify.

In 2015 world production of iron castings was about 75 million tonnes per year.

Steel

We need iron ore to make steel. We also add a small amount of carbon (from coal) in the process of making steel. Oxygen furnaces are used in the making of steel, thus expending other energy sources.

Let us not forget, steelmaking is one of the most carbon emission intensive industries in the world. As of 2020, steelmaking is estimated to be responsible for 7 to 9 per cent of all direct fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions.

Mild steel is used for lots of things – nails, wire, car bodies, ship building, girders and bridges amongst others. High carbon steel is used for cutting tools and masonry nails (nails designed to be driven into concrete blocks or brickwork without bending).

Special steels such as those shown below where iron is alloyed with other metals. 

To heat the furnace to be able to extract the molten iron ore, we have historically burned coke. We have to make coke by burning coal.

Governments are aware of the dangers of industrial applications such as these which have been with industrial nations for centuries.

Coke oven emissions come from large ovens that are used to heat coal to produce coke, which is used to manufacture iron and steel. The emissions are complex mixtures of dust, vapors, and gases that typically include carcinogens such as cadmium and arsenic. Chemicals recovered from coke oven emissions are used as raw materials for producing items such as plastics, solvents, dyes, paints, and insulation.

Workers at coking plants and coal-tar production plants may be exposed to coke oven emissions. Occupational exposures can also occur among workers in the aluminum, steel, graphite, electrical, and construction industries. The primary routes of potential human exposure to coke oven emissions are inhalation and absorption through the skin.

Exposure to coke oven emissions increases the risk of lung cancer and, possibly, kidney cancer.  

Only competition with cheaper products made abroad caused the coke works of Britain to begin to close. Example, see Wikipedia:

Monckton Coke Works (formerly the Monckton Coke and Chemical Company Ltd)[1] was a coking plant near Royston in South Yorkshire, England. The plant opened in 1884 and was closed 130 years later in 2014, being one of the last remnants of the coal industry in Yorkshire. In the 21st century, it was known as being the last independent coke works in the United Kingdom. For many years it was known for its high-quality coking coal, even being exported to coal-rich South Africa for use in steelmaking. However, in 2013/2014, the market was swamped with cheap imports from the Far East, spelling the demise of Monckton due to it being uneconomical.

Note, it was not health concerns which caused the closures. Nowadays, we have Health and Safety reports which spell out the danger of developing cancers through employment exposure, but do we stop those employments because of the risk?

IGBR website proudly boasts the management of the coke supply chain:

IGBR has access to high quality metallurgical coke from China, Russia and USA. IGBR manages the entire supply chain – procurement ex-factory, on-road transportation, port handling, financing and storage. Our supplies are authenticated by independent assayers and the entire loading process is overseen by our inspectors at the loading regions.

IGBR image

The demand for quality steel is very high for obvious reasons. The UK was a major player, but has lost out finally to competition abroad. Below, the now closed, once iconic, Redcar Steelworks on the North East Coast, Teesside, UK.

A Tyneside Industry, UK

In 2001 the legacy of contamination from the iron and steel industry was studied.

Former iron and steel works sites are significant in terms of their size, number, degree of contamination, and their wide distribution in the United Kingdom. They are likely to have become chemically contaminated with a wide range of substances from the manufacture of iron and steel, and the many associated processes. Associated processes include coke-production, metal refining and finishing. Contamination by metals, inorganic and organic compounds, acids/alkalis and asbestos is common on such sites. The aim of this research was to draw together information on the contamination of former iron and steel works through a review of current literature and by the use of examples and case studies from the UK. The style of the paper is loosely based on an Inter-departmental Committee for Research in Contaminated Land (ICRCL) style guidance note, with case studies and examples.

The industrial uses of asbestos in these industries is an added danger. But asbestos was used everywhere in UK society and I have friends and family who have died from mesothelioma. One was my cousin, a teacher, another was a neighbour who had worked at a power station. It is yet another horrible way to die and the legacy of harm is throughout our society.

About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers. In 1998 I co-wrote Millennium Countdown (US)/ A Business Guide to the Year 2000 (UK) see https://www.abebooks.co.uk/products/isbn/9780749427917
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