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2012 technology review: A look back on the future

Keywords: Tags  ArcelorMittal Long Carbon Europe, Nico Reuter, Dubai Aluminium Co., Dubal, GE, Siemens VAI Metals Technologies, Simetal LiquiRob, Phil Ponikvar Wuhan Iron & Steel


So far, 2012 has proven to be an interesting year for technological developments in various metal sectors. Steel and aluminum producers in particular have aggressively pursued new means of production efficiency, safety and sustainability. Here are just some of those breakthroughs:

Renewable energy

Earlier this year, ArcelorMittal SA showcased new products for use in the renewable energy sector. The Luxembourg-based steelmaker unveiled its latest long products for the construction of lattice-tower wind turbines for onshore wind farms. Steel lattice towers generally are lower in cost, generate more power because they capture higher wind speeds with their greater height, are significantly lighter, require less-bulky foundations and have the lowest life-cycle costs for sustainable energy production, according to ArcelorMittal. “The low-cost structure and reduced foundations, combined with corrosion protection through galvanizing, makes it the best investment over the long term,” the company said.

“The steel industry contributes actively in saving carbon dioxide emissions with lightweight steel solutions. Moreover, we are delivering steel to support renewable energy use,” ArcelorMittal Long Carbon Europe vice president Nico Reuter said, noting that ArcelorMittal supplied more than 4 million tonnes of steel solely for energy infrastructure in 2011.


Energy costs

The price of energy has reached unprecedented levels in the past decade. In an effort to lower energy costs, many metal manufacturers are developing innovative solutions to reduce overall energy consumption. Aluminum is especially costly to produce, with electricity accounting for nearly one-third of total production costs. Dubai Aluminium Co. Ltd. (Dubal) has taken a proactive stance to save power in an energy-reduction initiative with GE Energy that focuses primarily on its fleet of gas turbines.

State-owned Dubal’s production complex south of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, produces about 960,000 tonnes of aluminum annually for customers in 48 countries. The facility, which has expanded several times over the past 30 years, is currently powered by 23 gas turbines running 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. In all, the complex has a generation capacity of 2,350 megawatts, making the operation completely autonomous in terms of energy.

The process of manufacturing aluminum—converting alumina into metallic aluminum—requires a large amount of electricity. During the smelting process, a direct electrical current with extremely high amperage, usually 150,000 amperes or more, must be channeled through a cryolite/alumina mixture to achieve the desired chemical reactions. Additionally, the potline must run around the clock; any power interruptions can cause the pots to “freeze,” resulting in irreversible damage. The entire process uses so much energy that aluminum smelters accounted for nearly 3 percent of global energy consumption in 2011.

Dubal teamed up with GE to design a system that would drastically reduce the costs associated with electricity production and improve the overall reliability of its turbines. “Performance and reliability of our power supply are very important for the production of aluminum,” Dubal president and chief executive officer Abdulla Kalban said in 2009. “This service agreement with GE will help us reduce our cost of generating electricity, which will lead to a lower cost of aluminum production, positioning us more competitively in the global market.”

The $45-million service agreement, signed in August 2009, tasked GE with implementing innovative solutions that would simultaneously allow Dubal to lower its energy consumption and reduce its nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 15 percent, all while maintaining normal production.


Quality improvement

Wyomissing, Pa.-based Carpenter Technology Corp. designed a phased array inspection system for bar and coil alloys to increase product throughput and improve quality. The company’s goal was to develop an innovative inspection system that would enable it to quickly and accurately test its bar and coil products, identify defects and automatically sort material based on the test results, all with a minimal amount of handling. The system had to have the versatility to inspect hundreds of sizes of material and measure that material against hundreds of different customer specifications. Carpenter began testing the use of phased array immersion ultrasonic inspections nearly 10 years ago. The new system has increased throughput five- to sevenfold, and has a perfect customer track record for error-proofing.


Robotics

Using robots in industrial environments is far from a new idea. But while they’ve been used in automotive assembly plants for years, they are rarely used in steel mills. Austria’s Siemens VAI Metals Technologies GmbH would like to see that change through the use of its Simetal LiquiRob flexible robot-aided measuring solution, which has already been installed in about 10 steelmaking facilities in Europe, Asia and South America, with three or four North American producers reportedly considering the new technology. Siemens, an international supplier of steel mill technologies, provides the automation for Simetal LiquiRob using industrial robots from several European producers.

Phil Ponikvar, business segment manager for mechanical equipment at Siemens Industry Inc., Canonsburg, Pa., acknowledged that the steel industry has been somewhat reluctant to use robotics. However, it’s a technology whose time has come, he said, given the number of injuries in the hot end of steelmaking facilities each year, as well as producers’ desire to provide high-quality steel products that closely conform to increasingly stringent end-user requirements.

When the Simetal LiquiRob technology was developed, Ponikvar said, it was mainly to improve safety in the hot end of steelmaking plants by having a robot do some of the normal day-to-day, heat-to-heat operations, such as taking temperatures or chemical samples in the furnace or in the casting machine tundish.

In a steel mill environment, particularly where liquid metal is produced or manipulated, operators are continually exposed to dangerous working conditions. This is true both at electric-arc furnace and basic oxygen furnace operations, as well as at continuous casters, secondary metallurgical plants and converters.

“Using a robot is unbelievably safer. There is no chance that sparking or boiling of steel will result in splashback on a worker,” Ponikvar said. “What we wanted to do was eliminate the need of having humans doing some of the more dangerous jobs, but what we found afterwards was that we weren’t only able to assist in improving safety, but we were also able to allow steelmakers to have an operation that was more stable and controlled than it had been previously.”


Energy efficiency

Wuhan Iron & Steel (Group) Corp. (Wisco), China’s fourth-largest steelmaker, was producing about 40 million tons of iron and steel per year operating with traditional steam boilers when it entered into a relationship with GE Energy. Increased demand for steel was driving the need for more electricity—up to 10 billion kilowatt-hours per year, an unsustainable, costly drain on the public grid—and Wisco engaged GE Energy to develop and execute an innovative approach that would increase energy efficiency and profitability, all while reducing emissions and maintaining a high level of production. GE added two gas turbines, two generators and a double-ended fuel gas compressor to handle the large compression loads associated with compressing ultra-low-heating-value fuel. The centrifugal fuel gas compressor created for the project was the largest GE has made in the company’s history.


Steel improvements

ArcelorMittal USA Inc.’s Burns Harbor, Ind., plant achieved enhanced efficiency and quality by rebuilding its 160-inch plate mill heat-treat operation. The subsidiary of Luxembourg-based steelmaker ArcelorMittal SA recently completed the state-of-the-art project, which was unique in its innovative use and redeployment of existing facilities coupled with new technology and equipment to meet or exceed the most demanding requirements of today’s plate customers and their needs well into the future. The project allowed the company to minimize both the cost and the duration of construction, representing the lowest possible investment, shortest time to return and least disruption to customers. The cornerstone of the approximately $60-million investment is a new high-capacity leveler with additional furnace, processing and automation improvements.

ArcelorMittal USA also has been busy at its Indiana Harbor plant in East Chicago, Ill. The “Energy Recovery and Reuse: 504 Boiler Project” involves the installation of a waste-energy recovery boiler, which will use blast furnace gas to generate steam that will drive existing generators to produce approximately 333,000 megawatt-hours of electricity annually—enough to power about 30,000 U.S. homes per year—and indirectly reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 340,000 tons annually due to reduced purchased grid power, which is predominantly from coal-fired utility power generation facilities. (Indiana’s power is 95 percent coal-based.)


Re-mining

West Chester, Ohio-based steelmaker AK Steel Corp. partnered with Grand Rapids, Minn.-based Magnetation Inc. to form joint-venture Magnetation LLC, which produces iron ore feedstock and pellets from legacy reserves in Minnesota. Magnetation uses an advanced magnetic separation process to recover iron ore from existing stockpiles of previously mined material. Utilizing these iron ore tailings eliminates the need for traditional drilling, blasting and excavating, and it can result in the creation of new wetlands in an environmentally responsible manner. The magnetic separation technology used by Magnetation was pioneered by Magnetation Inc. chief executive officer Larry Lehtinen. Magnetation plans to complete construction of a 3-million-ton-per-year pelletizing plant by 2016 that will consume the majority of the joint venture’s iron concentrate production.


Emissions reduction

Essar Steel Algoma Inc., Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, installed an individualized oven pressure control system on its No. 9 coke battery in November 2011, the first installation of its kind in North America. The company sought to achieve a change in environmental performance by replacing an existing common-pressure dual collector main, resulting in a substantial reduction in emissions. In the process, it also achieved an overall project cost reduction vs. supplier estimates by adopting an “engineer, procure and construct” approach, optimizing internal resource utilization (both materials and labor) and by introducing enhanced installation methodology. Essar said its proven progress and continued investment in emissions-control initiatives demonstrate its leadership in environmental stewardship.


Aluminum alloys

Moving to ensure that new generations of aircraft being built over the next several decades continue to use aluminum rather than plastics or composites, Alcoa Inc. is developing materials that would beat composites in terms of performance. The Pittsburgh-based company’s research and development team also is working to develop an entirely new set of aluminum-lithium alloys that perform better and at a lower cost. The new alloys provide up to 10-percent weight savings over composite-intensive planes; lower the cost to manufacture, operate and repair planes by up to 30 percent compared with composites; allow for a 12-percent increase in fuel efficiency, on top of a 15-percent improvement in efficiency from new engines; and deliver passenger comfort features, such as higher cabin pressure, larger windows and higher humidity.


Premium product

Amcor Flexibles Inc.’s Canny product is the first wrinkle-free, thin-walled aluminum bowl. Primarily aimed at premium or indulgence food markets, it is designed to meet the needs of customer convenience for products and still be easy to open. Canny is the result of more than two years of development by Amcor Flexibles—a division of Australian packaging company Amcor Ltd.—to make a product that combines practical, attractive features amid growing demand for more convenient and safe packaging. The Canny aluminum bowl is smooth, with no sharp edges and an easily peelable membrane that reduces spillage. Canny also is 30 percent lighter than traditional ring-pull aluminum bowls.


Weight reduction

Jaguar Land Rover Plc, a customer of Atlanta-based Novelis Inc. for more than 20 years, needed a solution to reduce the weight of its new Range Rover Evoque to help make it the most fuel-efficient Range Rover model ever. Novelis was selected as the sole supplier of aluminum sheet for the all-new Evoque, providing aluminum sheet for the vehicle’s hood, roof and structural parts. Novelis’ greatest challenge was to develop a high-strength, lightweight roof joined to a steel structure. Because aluminum and steel have different thermal expansion coefficients, the roof stiffness had to be increased to avoid deformations with temperature changes. To meet this challenge, Novelis created Anticorodal-600 PX, a new high-strength aluminum alloy.


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