Steel is an important commodity and a viable alternative to traditional iron, thanks to its durability, flexibility and malleability. Prior to the mid-19th century, steel production was complicated and expensive, until a new production method called the Bessemer process was invented.
This has transformed steel production into the multi-million-pound global industry it is today. Invented by British engineer Sir Henry Bessemer, the new process made steel production quicker, easier and cheaper, completely revolutionising structural engineering.
History of steel production
Prior to the invention of the Bessemer process, iron had been the most used metal in Europe. However, increasing urbanisation and the expansion of railroads in the 19th century, in both America and Europe, put pressure on the iron industry. This meant a more versatile structural metal was needed.
Bessemer studied the challenge and in 1856 proposed passing strong blasts of air through molten pig iron to reduce the carbon and thus produce steel. The only thing he was unable to do was remove phosphorus (an impurity) from the steel, leaving it too brittle.
Welsh engineer Sidney Gilchrist Thomas came up with a solution in 1876, when he added flux-limestone to Bessemer’s process – this drew the phosphorus from the pig iron, removing the unwanted impurity and leaving a high-quality steel.
Thanks to technological advances, steel production is now a major global industry, with many types and grades available including alloy steel, stainless steel, carbon steel and tool steel.
Top steel producing countries
Global crude steel production was 1,266.9 metric tons in the first nine months of 2017 – an increase of 5.6% compared to 2016. Asia was the biggest steel-producing continent, increasing its crude steel production by 5.9% to 876.3 metric tons in the same period.
China is the biggest steel producing country in the world, with its steel production totalling 71.8 metric tons in September 2017 alone – an increase of 5.3% on the amount produced in September 2016.
China’s steel production was sparse at the beginning of the 20th century, but after the nation’s rapid industrialisation in 1978, the steel industry increased output and reached record levels last year. The large-scale mass production of steel in China makes it relatively cheap and therefore competitive in the world market.
Japan in the second biggest steel producing country, with figures revealing it produced 8.6 metric tons in one month in September 2017 – an increase of 2.0% compared with the same period in 2016. JFE Holdings in Chiyoda, Tokyo and Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal (which has plants all over Japan, but also has its headquarters in Chiyoda) were ranked in the top 10 steel producing companies in the world.
Japan’s steel production was zero in the mid to late 19th century, but by 1970 the nation’s crude steel production had rocketed to 93.3 million tons per year.
The United States produced 6.7 metric tons of crude steel in September 2017 – an increase of 8.6% on the same period in 2016. Since the 1950s, the American industry has moved to smaller mini-mills, using iron and steel scrap as feedstock instead of iron ore.
The three major sources of iron ore today are China, which supplies 23% of the world’s iron ore, followed by Australia and Brazil, which supply 18% each. The ore is converted into several types of iron. The most common process to produce pig iron involves using a blast furnace.
The pig iron itself has only a limited use, with the majority going on to steel mills where it’s converted into different types of steel alloys. The manufacturing process includes reducing the iron’s carbon content and adding elements such as nickel and manganese.
Today’s steel making comes from both raw and recycled materials, using two processes: electric arc furnace, which accounts for almost all steel production, and basic oxygen steelmaking, which accounts for the remainder.
Steel is 100% recyclable and can be re-used time and time again without losing its quality, so the scrap market is a lucrative one, providing a valuable raw material for steel production. More than 95% of steel in cars is recycled, and in Europe, more than 74% of steel packaging is recycled, making it the most recycled packaging material.
Steel is such a durable metal that it can be used and re-used for many decades, even lasting for centuries. Currently, around 50% of the total EU steel production comes from recycled scrap.
Using steel and other metals including chrome, brass and aluminium, Pipecraft’s specialist metal fabrication services are carried out on modern, high volume machinery. This enables us to provide the optimum products and services for our clients.
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