China commissions first commercial HIsmelt plant in Shandong province, which can produce steel using low grade Iron ore fines and non coking coal. Is it the great leap forward in iron making?
When China first implemented liberal market reforms it produced just about 4% of total global crude steel; today it manufactures close to 50% of the global output – more than all other countries put together! This phenomenal capacity enhancement has been possible due to the uncanny ability of the Chinese to extract value and profits out of discarded products and processes. For 30 years or more, Chinese firms have bought cast-off factories from Australia, the US, Japan, Germany, Britain and other developed countries and taken them home, observes Peter Hartcher, international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald in a perceptive article in that daily. And this is true of technology too. China deserves credit for incessant up-gradation and fine-tuning of technological processes to achieve optimized production levels.
Recent image of running HIsmelt plant in China
Betting big on HIsmelt
The HIsmelt technology of iron making is one instructive case in point. From 1970 onwards, growing environmental concerns and unavailability of quality raw material led the iron and steel industry to develop non-BF iron making research. New technologies such as Corex, Finex, Midrex, Circofer and HIsmelt emerged. While debates around their commercial viability raged, HIsmelt was unanimously accepted as the simplest and cleanest DRI process, since it can do away with coke ovens and sintering plants from the production line – thereby greatly minimizing the industry’s carbon footprint – and use directly injected iron ore and non-coking coal to produce hot metal.
A conference paper penned by five Chinese engineers published in the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers’ website notes that with the increasing exhaustion of mineral resources and the soaring prices of international iron ore, China’s iron and steel enterprises are facing grim challenges, especially after the failure of international iron ore price negotiations in 2010. As an iron making technology, HIsmelt eliminates front-end processes and uses cheaper ore fines, thermal coal and steel plant wastes directly. Its industrial potential is huge due to its greater raw material and operational flexibility, lower capital costs and environmental impact, which would meet low-carbon economy and sustainable development goals advocated by the Chinese government.
HIsmelt: A chequered history
From 1982 to 2008, UK mining giant Rio Tinto spent a billion dollars developing the revolutionary iron ore smelting technique. Millions of dollars were channeled to build a pioneering demonstration plant at Kwinana, south of Perth. In 2002, Rio Tinto and three partners (US steelmaker Nucor Corp., Japanese trading house Mitsubishi and China’s Shougang Steel) founded a joint venture to develop the HIsmelt demonstration plant with an annual capacity of 800,000 tons. In 2004, the Kwinana plant was installed and started operations the following year. It ran intermittently till 2008 when the financial crisis rocked world economies. The company decided to abandon the development of HIsmelt.
In 2012, a private entrepreneur from a small Chinese steelmaking company evinced interest in HIsmelt. With an annual capacity of 600,000 tons, the plant generally purchases hot metal from around blast furnaces. It decided to invest in the HIsmelt plant and sent engineers to Kwinana in 2012, removed some valuable equipment from the plant and delivered it back to China. The plant eventually changed hands; it was dismantled and shipped off, bolt by bolt, to Shandong. It has been reassembled by Molong Petroleum Machinery Co Ltd, which is doubling its size. The construction and installation of the Shandong plant started in 2014 and were wrapped up by the end of 2015. The commissioning started in early 2016 and the first charge happened in August of that year.
China shows the way forward
While the Kwinana plant was running, the Chinese iron and steel industry was cruising on the highway of capacity expansion, which was important for China’s growth. The new technology attracted the attention of the Chinese President, high-ranking state officials, mammoth state-owned enterprises, and as many as 37 large Chinese iron and steel groups visited Kwinana. With a view to promoting it in the Chinese market, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, Chinese Society for Metals, Nonferrous Metals Society of China, China Foundry Association, China Metallurgical Group Corporation, BaoWu Steel Group, ShougGang group, and some universities and institutes held a technological authentication meeting at University of Science and Technology in Beijing. All the parties attested that HIsmelt was a globally advantageous and cost-competitive process and ought to be extensively promoted in China.
Data do all the talking
An informative LinkedIn post by Roy Luo Yuhua, a Chinese engineer and expert who was formerly associated with the HIsmelt plant, has very helpfully detailed the production statistics of the Shouguang Shandong plant. The plant comprises an oxygen plant, raw material handling system, preheating system, coal mill, coal injection, iron injection, the furnace and hood, a slag handling system, and hot metal and flue gas handling system. In 2017, the plant achieved more than 3 months of continuous production, which rose to 4 months in early 2018. According to an onsite survey, the refractory lifetime estimation is about 3-5 years. Currently, daily production is pegged at 1900 tons. The pre-heating of the iron ore is conducted at a temperature of 850℃, with an ore injection rate of 130-140 tons per hour. Interestingly, operational expenditure is equal to BF, and in some months lower than BF. The coal consumption rate is 800kg/thm and power generation capacity is 733kwh/thm. Accumulative production from December 2016 to March2018 has been recorded at 450,000 tons.
Optimization plans include adjusting coal blending parameters to continue optimizing OPEX; adjusting iron ore blending, feeding vanadium titano-magnetite, purchasing more high-phosphate and high-alumina iron ore; and increasing the efficiency of the energy recovery system of the off gas hood.
Yuhua notes with optimism that the location and logistical advantages of the Shouguang Shandong plant holds high hopes for the widespread promotion of the technology. Production data shows that monthly, daily and accumulative productivity as well as running time of the plant have all reached a new high. In addition, the refractory of the furnace is still strong enough to continue production. With AI, machine learning and cloud calculation developing, the new HIsmelt plant will implement digital plant strategies and build its own hardware and software systems to form cluster development models, thereby continuously optimizing and updating a large volume of operational data from different projects.
With HIsmelt technology maturing gradually, new projects are emerging. Detailed technical drawings for a 2-4 million tons annual capacity plant are ready and even before the Kwinana plant was divested, a western investor showed keenness in setting up a third plant. The ore cut off grade for HIsmelt is 55% and, apart from China, gargantuan reserves of high-phosphorus, high-alumina iron ore are spread across India and the subcontinent. With the dawn of the high noon of HIsmelt technology in China, it can be safely assumed that Indian iron and steel majors would be more than willing to catch up.
Want to keep abreast of the radical potential of HIsmelt in changing the future course of the iron making industry? Book your seat at Steel Via – the global steel innovations forum dedicated to unveiling the power of disruptive technologies – where Mr Hobson Wang, Chief Representative MENA, Shandong Province Metallurgical Engineering Ltd., will deliver an incisive address on HIsmelt and its revolutionary potential.