Blast Furnace - Process Engineering and Chemistry

Process Engineering and Chemistry

Blast furnaces operate on the principle of chemical reduction whereby carbon monoxide, having a stronger affinity for the oxygen in iron ore than iron does, reduces the iron to its elemental form. Blast furnaces differ from bloomeries and reverberatory furnaces in that in former, flue gas is in intimate contact with the ore and iron, allowing carbon monoxide to diffuse into the ore and reduce the iron oxide to elemental iron mixed with carbon. The blast furnaces operates as a countercurrent exchange process whereas a bloomery does not. Another difference is that bloomeries operate as a batch process while blast furnaces operate continuously for long periods because they are difficult to start up and shut down. (See: Continuous production) Also, the carbon in pig iron lowers the melting point below that of steel or pure iron; in contrast, iron does not melt in a bloomery.

Carbon monoxide also reduces silica which has to be removed from the pig iron. The silica is reacted with calcium oxide (burned limestone) and forms a slag which floats to the surface of the molten pig iron.

The intimate contact of flue gas with the iron causes contamination with sulfur if it is present in the fuel. Historically, to prevent contamination from sulfur, the best quality iron was produced with charcoal.

The downward moving column of ore, flux, coke or charcoal and reaction products must be porous enough for the flue gas to pass through. This requires the coke or charcoal to be in large enough particles to be permeable, meaning there cannot be an excess of fines. Therefore the coke must be strong enough so it will not be crushed by the weight the overhead material. Besides physical strength of the coke, it must also be low in sulfur, phosphorus and ash. This necessitates the use of metallurgical coal, which is a premium grade due to its relative scarcity.

The main chemical reaction producing the molten iron is:

Fe2O3 + 3CO → 2Fe + 3CO2

This reaction might be divided into multiple steps, with the first being that preheated blast air blown into the furnace reacts with the carbon in the form of coke to produce carbon monoxide and heat:

2 C(s) + O2(g) → 2 CO(g)

The hot carbon monoxide is the reducing agent for the iron ore and reacts with the iron oxide to produce molten iron and carbon dioxide. Depending on the temperature in the different parts of the furnace (warmest at the bottom) the iron is reduced in several steps. At the top, where the temperature usually is in the range between 200 °C and 700 °C, the iron oxide is partially reduced to iron(II,III) oxide, Fe3O4.

3 Fe2O3(s) + CO(g) → 2 Fe3O4(s) + CO2(g)

At temperatures around 850 °C, further down in the furnace, the iron(II,III) is reduced further to iron(II) oxide:

Fe3O4(s) + CO(g) → 3 FeO(s) + CO2(g)

Hot carbon dioxide, unreacted carbon monoxide, and nitrogen from the air pass up through the furnace as fresh feed material travels down into the reaction zone. As the material travels downward, the counter-current gases both preheat the feed charge and decompose the limestone to calcium oxide and carbon dioxide:

CaCO3(s) → CaO(s) + CO2(g)

As the iron(II) oxide moves down to the area with higher temperatures, ranging up to 1200 °C degrees, it is reduced further to iron metal:

FeO(s) + CO(g) → Fe(s) + CO2(g)

The carbon dioxide formed in this process is re-reduced to carbon monoxide by the coke:

C(s) + CO2(g) → 2 CO(g)

The temperature-dependent equilibrium controlling the gas atmosphere in the furnace is called the Boudouard reaction:

2CO CO2 + C

The decomposition of limestone in the middle zones of the furnace proceeds according to the following reaction:

CaCO → CaO + CO

The calcium oxide formed by decomposition reacts with various acidic impurities in the iron (notably silica), to form a fayalitic slag which is essentially calcium silicate, CaSiO3:

SiO + CaO → CaSiO

The "pig iron" produced by the blast furnace has a relatively high carbon content of around 4–5%, making it very brittle, and of limited immediate commercial use. Some pig iron is used to make cast iron. The majority of pig iron produced by blast furnaces undergoes further processing to reduce the carbon content and produce various grades of steel used for construction materials, automobiles, ships and machinery.

Although the efficiency of blast furnaces is constantly evolving, the chemical process inside the blast furnace remains the same. According to the American Iron and Steel Institute: "Blast furnaces will survive into the next millennium because the larger, efficient furnaces can produce hot metal at costs competitive with other iron making technologies." One of the biggest drawbacks of the blast furnaces is the inevitable carbon dioxide production as iron is reduced from iron oxides by carbon and there is no economical substitute – steelmaking is one of the unavoidable industrial contributors of the CO2 emissions in the world (see greenhouse gases).

The challenge set by the greenhouse gas emissions of the blast furnace is being addressed in an on-going European Program called ULCOS (Ultra Low CO2 Steelmaking). Several new process routes have been proposed and investigated in depth to cut specific emissions (CO2 per ton of steel) by at least 50%. Some rely on the capture and further storage (CCS) of CO2, while others choose decarbonizing iron and steel production, by turning to hydrogen, electricity and biomass. In the nearer term, a technology that incorporates CCS into the blast furnace process itself and is called the Top-Gas Recycling Blast Furnace is under development, with a scale-up to a commercial size blast furnace under way. The technology should be fully demonstrated by the end of the 2010s, in line with the timeline set, for example, by the EU to cut emissions significantly. Broad deployment could take place from 2020 on.

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