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Ferroalloys tied closely to market demand for steel

Keywords: Tags  US ferroalloy imports, ferroalloy market, US steelmakers, U.S. Geological Survey, Hickman, Williams & Co., Robert Davis,


The demand for, and market success of, ferroalloys is closely tied to trends within the steel industry, especially the need for higher-quality, higher-strength products.

The U.S. steel industry, the leading consumer of ferroalloys, is continually improving techniques for producing higher-quality steel. The demand for high-quality steel isn’t expected to abate in the near future, but in some cases the improved techniques might result in a decrease of the quantity of ferroalloys needed, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Since ferroalloys are used primarily in the manufacture of steel, the actual end uses are numerous, such as in the construction of buildings, cars and household goods and in the aerospace industry.

The United States, and North America in general, are net importers of ferroalloys, according to Robert Davis, vice president of Oak Brook, Ill.-based Hickman, Williams & Co. North American production has fallen to about 1.5 percent of worldwide production today from around 5.3 percent in 2000.

“North America is a minor factor in the production of ferroalloys. In fact, the U.S. is a minor producer of ferroalloys,” he said. “North American producers account for only 1.47 percent of all ferroalloys and specialty alloy production. Over 80 percent of the ferroalloys consumed in the United States are imported.”

The major ferroalloys consumed in the United States are ferrochrome, ferromolybdenum, ferromanganese and ferrosilicon. 

Ferrochrome has a wide range of uses in metals, chemicals and refractories. It is one of the nation’s most important strategic and critical materials, according to the USGS. Chromium use in iron, steel and nonferrous alloys enhances hardening and resistance to corrosion and oxidation. The use of chromium to produce stainless steel and nonferrous alloys are two of its more important applications; other applications are in steel alloys and the plating of metals.

Most chromite ore is converted into ferrochrome that is consumed by the metallurgical industry, and most of that is consumed to make stainless and heat-resisting steel. Last year was characterized by uncertainty resulting from the escalating eurozone debt crisis, according to the USGS. World ingot and slab equivalent stainless and heat-resisting steel production reached about 32 million tons in 2011, an historically high level.

Ferromolybdenum is a refractory metallic element used principally as an alloying agent in steel, cast iron and superalloys to enhance hardening, strength, toughness and wear and corrosion resistance. To achieve desired metallurgical properties, molybdenum—primarily in the form of molybdic oxide or ferromolybdenum—is frequently used in combination with or added to chromium, columbium, manganese, nickel, tungsten or other alloy metals.

The versatility of molybdenum in enhancing a variety of alloy properties has ensured it a significant role in contemporary industrial technology, which increasingly requires materials that are serviceable under high stress, expanded temperature ranges and highly corrosive environments, according to the USGS.

In 2011, molybdenum valued at about $2.2 billion (based on the average oxide price) was produced by 10 U.S. mines. Molybdenum ore was produced as a primary product at four mines (one each in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico), while six copper mines (three in Arizona and one each in Montana, Nevada and Utah) recovered molybdenum as a by-product. Three roasting plants converted molybdenite concentrate to molybdic oxide, from which intermediate products like ferromolybdenum, metal powder and various chemicals were produced. Iron and steel and superalloy producers accounted for about 81 percent of the molybdenum consumed.

Ferromanganese is essential to iron and steel production by virtue of its sulfur-fixing, deoxidizing and alloying properties. Steelmaking, including its iron making component, accounts for most domestic manganese demand, currently in a range of 85 to 90 percent of the total. Manganese ferroalloys, consisting of various grades of ferromanganese and silicomanganese, provide most of this key ingredient to steelmaking. Products for construction, machinery and transportation are leading end uses of manganese, and the metal also is a key component of certain widely used aluminum alloys and, in oxide form, dry-cell batteries.

Manganese ore containing 35 percent or more manganese hasn’t been produced domestically since 1970. Last year, manganese ore was consumed mainly by eight companies with plants principally in the East and Midwest. Most ore consumption was related to steel production, directly in pig iron manufacture and indirectly through upgrading ore to ferroalloys. Manganese ferroalloys were produced at two smelters. Construction end uses accounted for about 29 percent of manganese demand, while machinery and transportation products each consumed about 10 percent. Most of the rest went to a variety of other iron and steel applications. The value of domestic consumption, estimated from foreign trade data, was about $1.3 billion.

Silicon metal, which like ferrosilicon is generally produced in submerged electric-arc furnaces, is not used as a ferroalloy but rather for alloying with aluminum and for the production of chemicals. 


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