The blast furnace remains an important part of modern iron production. Modern furnaces are highly efficient, including Cowper stoves to pre-heat the blast air and employ recovery systems to extract the heat from the hot gases exiting the furnace. Competition in industry drives higher production rates. The largest blast furnaces have a volume around 5580 m3 (190,000 cu ft) and can produce around 80,000 tonnes (88,000 short tons) of iron per week.
Modern furnaces are equipped with an array of supporting facilities to increase efficiency, such as ore storage yards where barges are unloaded. The raw materials are transferred to the stockhouse complex by ore bridges, or rail hoppers and ore transfer cars. Rail-mounted scale cars or computer controlled weight hoppers weigh out the various raw materials to yield the desired hot metal and slag chemistry. The raw materials are brought to the top of the blast furnace via a skip car powered by winches or conveyor belts.
There are different ways in which the raw materials are charged into the blast furnace. Some blast furnaces use a “double bell” system where two “bells” are used to control the entry of raw material into the blast furnace. The purpose of the two bells is to minimize the loss of hot gases in the blast furnace. First, the raw materials are emptied into the upper or small bell which then opens to empty the charge into the large bell. The small bell then closes, to seal the blast furnace, while the large bell rotates to provide specific distribution of materials before dispensing the charge into the blast furnace. A more recent design is to use a “bell-less” system. These systems use multiple hoppers to contain each raw material, which is then discharged into the blast furnace through valves. These valves are more accurate at controlling how much of each constituent is added, as compared to the skip or conveyor system, thereby increasing the efficiency of the furnace. Some of these bell-less systems also implement a discharge chute in the throat of the furnace (as with the Paul Wurth top) in order to precisely control where the charge is placed.
The iron making blast furnace itself is built in the form of a tall structure, lined with refractory brick, and profiled to allow for expansion of the charged materials as they heat during their descent, and subsequent reduction in size as melting starts to occur. Coke, limestone flux, and iron ore (iron oxide) are charged into the top of the furnace in a precise filling order which helps control gas flow and the chemical reactions inside the furnace. Four “uptakes” allow the hot, dirty gas high in carbon monoxide content to exit the furnace throat, while “bleeder valves” protect the top of the furnace from sudden gas pressure surges. The coarse particles in the exhaust gas settle in the “dust catcher” and are dumped into a railroad car or truck for disposal, while the gas itself flows through a venturi scrubber and/or electrostatic precipitators and a gas cooler to reduce the temperature of the cleaned gas.
The “casthouse” at the bottom half of the furnace contains the bustle pipe, water cooled copper tuyeres and the equipment for casting the liquid iron and slag. Once a “taphole” is drilled through the refractory clay plug, liquid iron and slag flow down a trough through a “skimmer” opening, separating the iron and slag. Modern, larger blast furnaces may have as many as four tapholes and two casthouses. Once the pig iron and slag has been tapped, the taphole is again plugged with refractory clay.
Tuyeres of Blast Furnace at Gerdau, India
The tuyeres are used to implement a hot blast, which is used to increase the efficiency of the blast furnace. The hot blast is directed into the furnace through water-cooled copper nozzles called tuyeres near the base. The hot blast temperature can be from 900 °C to 1300 °C (1600 °F to 2300 °F) depending on the stove design and condition. The temperatures they deal with may be 2000 °C to 2300 °C (3600 °F to 4200 °F). Oil, tar, natural gas, powdered coal and oxygen can also be injected into the furnace at tuyere level to combine with the coke to release additional energy and increase the percentage of reducing gases present which is necessary to increase productivity.
How a blast furnace works
The purpose of a blast furnace is to chemically reduce and physically convert iron oxides into liquid iron called “hot metal”. The blast furnace is a huge, steel stack lined with refractory brick, where iron ore, coke and limestone are dumped into the top, and preheated air is blown into the bottom. The raw materials require 6 to 8 hours to descend to the bottom of the furnace where they become the final product of liquid slag and liquid iron. These liquid products are drained from the furnace at regular intervals. The hot air that was blown into the bottom of the furnace ascends to the top in 6 to 8 seconds after going through numerous chemical reactions. Once a blast furnace is started it will continuously run for four to ten years with only short stops to perform planned maintenance.
Iron oxides can come to the blast furnace plant in the form of raw ore, pellets or sinter. The raw ore is removed from the earth and sized into pieces that range from 0.5 to 1.5 inches. This ore is either Hematite (Fe2O3) or Magnetite (Fe3O4) and the iron content ranges from 50% to 70%. This iron rich ore can be charged directly into a blast furnace without any further processing. Iron ore that contains a lower iron content must be processed or beneficiated to increase its iron content. Pellets are produced from this lower iron content ore. This ore is crushed and ground into a powder so the waste material called gangue can be removed. The remaining iron-rich powder is rolled into balls and fired in a furnace to produce strong, marble-sized pellets that contain 60% to 65% iron. Sinter is produced from fine raw ore, small coke, sand-sized limestone and numerous other steel plant waste materials that contain some iron. These fine materials are proportioned to obtain a desired product chemistry then mixed together. This raw material mix is then placed on a sintering strand, which is similar to a steel conveyor belt, where it is ignited by gas fired furnace and fused by the heat from the coke fines into larger size pieces that are from 0.5 to 2.0 inches. The iron ore, pellets and sinter then become the liquid iron produced in the blast furnace with any of their remaining impurities going to the liquid slag.
The coke is produced from a mixture of coals. The coal is crushed and ground into a powder and then charged into an oven. As the oven is heated the coal is cooked so most of the volatile matter such as oil and tar are removed. The cooked coal, called coke, is removed from the oven after 18 to 24 hours of reaction time. The coke is cooled and screened into pieces ranging from one inch to four inches. The coke contains 90 to 93% carbon, some ash and sulfur but compared to raw coal is very strong. The strong pieces of coke with a high energy value provide permeability, heat and gases which are required to reduce and melt the iron ore, pellets and sinter.
The final raw material in the ironmaking process in limestone. The limestone is removed from the earth by blasting with explosives. It is then crushed and screened to a size that ranges from 0.5 inch to 1.5 inch to become blast furnace flux . This flux can be pure high calcium limestone, dolomitic limestone containing magnesia or a blend of the two types of limestone.
Since the limestone is melted to become the slag which removes sulfur and other impurities, the blast furnace operator may blend the different stones to produce the desired slag chemistry and create optimum slag properties such as a low melting point and a high fluidity.
All of the raw materials are stored in an ore field and transferred to the stockhouse before charging. Once these materials are charged into the furnace top, they go through numerous chemical and physical reactions while descending to the bottom of the furnace.
The iron ore, pellets and sinter are reduced which simply means the oxygen in the iron oxides is removed by a series of chemical reactions. These reactions occur as follows:
3 Fe2O3 + CO = CO2 + 2 Fe3O4 Begins at 850° F
Fe3O4 + CO = CO2 + 3 FeO Begins at 1100° F
FeO + CO = CO2 + Fe
FeO + C = CO + Fe Begins at 1300° F
At the same time the iron oxides are going through these purifying reactions, they are also beginning to soften then melt and finally trickle as liquid iron through the coke to the bottom of the furnace.
The coke descends to the bottom of the furnace to the level where the preheated air or hot blast enters the blast furnace. The coke is ignited by this hot blast and immediately reacts to generate heat as follows:
Since the reaction takes place in the presence of excess carbon at a high temperature the carbon dioxide is reduced to carbon monoxide as follows:
The product of this reaction, carbon monoxide, is necessary to reduce the iron ore as seen in the previous iron oxide reactions.
The limestone descends in the blast furnace and remains a solid while going through its first reaction as follows:
This reaction requires energy and starts at about 1600°F. The CaO formed from this reaction is used to remove sulfur from the iron which is necessary before the hot metal becomes steel. This sulfur removing reaction is:
The CaS becomes part of the slag. The slag is also formed from any remaining Silica (SiO2), Alumina (Al2O3), Magnesia (MgO) or Calcia (CaO) that entered with the iron ore, pellets, sinter or coke. The liquid slag then trickles through the coke bed to the bottom of the furnace where it floats on top of the liquid iron since it is less dense.
Another product of the ironmaking process, in addition to molten iron and slag, is hot dirty gases. These gases exit the top of the blast furnace and proceed through gas cleaning equipment where particulate matter is removed from the gas and the gas is cooled. This gas has a considerable energy value so it is burned as a fuel in the “hot blast stoves” which are used to preheat the air entering the blast furnace to become “hot blast”. Any of the gas not burned in the stoves is sent to the boiler house and is used to generate steam which turns a turbo blower that generates the compressed air known as “cold blast” that comes to the stoves.
In summary, the blast furnace is a counter-current realtor where solids descend and gases ascend. In this reactor there are numerous chemical and physical reactions that produce the desired final product which is hot metal. A typical hot metal chemistry follows:
Iron (Fe) = 93.5 – 95.0%
Silicon (Si) = 0.30 – 0.90%
Sulfur (S) = 0.025 – 0.050%
Manganese (Mn) = 0.55 – 0.75%
Phosphorus (P) = 0.03 – 0.09%
Titanium (Ti) = 0.02 – 0.06%
Carbon (C) = 4.1 – 4.4%
Blast Furnace Documents
1 Wikipedia.org – Blast Furnace
2 American Iron and Steel Institute (2005). How a Blast Furnace Works. steel.org.
3 McNeil, Ian (1990), An encyclopaedia of the history of technology, Taylor & Francis, p. 163, ISBN 0-415-01306-2
4 Strassburger, Julius H. (1969), Blast furnace: Theory and Practice, Taylor & Francis, p. 564, ISBN 0-677-10420-0
5 Whitfield, Peter, Design and Operation of a Gimbal Top Charging System, retrieved 2008-06-22