We are standing at Number Five blast furnace, at the Port Talbot steelworks. It’s another windy day in South Wales.
The cast house floor is filled with the strong stench of soot and sulphur. A few meters away from the oven’s refractory lining is a bubbling lava reservoir.
We watch as a huge drill mounted on a robot arm swings towards the blast furnace’s base and the “tap wall” at its bottom. The blast furnace’s side is already hot even before the drill point touches it.
Cracks in the side allow gas to escape, creating a huge kitchen hob-like flame. Once the drill is in contact with the wall, it roars as it pierces through the clay.
The furnace’s side suddenly becomes black and the firework begins. Yellow sparks shoot out as the iron escapes.
All of us are wearing flame-retardant protection clothing, which is good because fireworks could engulf our bodies.
The smoke stops and we suddenly see the stream of yellow-hot liquid metal (lava) pouring down a channel in our floor. The room glows red and is heating up.
Blast furnaces can be extraordinary. Is there a better example of humankind’s desire to harness the elements and change the world than the blast furnaces?
These huge cauldrons consume hard rock and melt it down to make the most valuable of metals.
The backbones of modern society are iron and steel.
They are responsible for the skeletons and shells of buildings as well as the fiber of bridges.
Every manufactured product that you use every day will be a result of steel. Even if there isn’t any steel inside, the machines and tools used to make it were made from steel.
The blast furnaces of this type are responsible for the majority of Britain’s steel, more than three quarters by weight.
Iron ore is at the top. Today, it’s a mixture of solid chunks from Brazil and pellets processed from Sweden.
Limestone acts as a flux in the ore to absorb impurities. There’s also something called sinter which is a roasted mixture with iron ore dust and other things.
Then there is coal.Coke or coal, which is a form heated, near-pure, carbon, is being emptied into a blast furnace’s top today. It’s a mix of stuff from around the globe and the stuff they roast here in Wales.
It all happens layer after layer, day and night. After the mixture has melted, tap it for about an hour, and then the clay on the tap wall can be remade.
It’s tempting to see a blast furnace simply as an oven for melting steel. However, the highest temperature in the furnace was 2,237C (4.058F) on our visit. This is almost twice the temperature of lava that emerges from a volcano.
It’s actually a bit more useful to think of it like a chemistry vessel.
These furnaces are used to chemically decompose the iron oxide in iron ore. They remove oxygen and other impurities and allow the near-pure metal to flow from the bottom.There are only a few elements on the periodic table that can do this job, attracting oxygen atoms to purify raw materials like iron ore or other ores.
The furnace’s top is heated by the coal that has been emptied into it.
It is also facilitating the critical chemical reactions that transform 60% of iron into the 95% pure iron glugging from the furnace’s side.
Iron production is responsible for a significant amount of global greenhouse gas emissions (7% according to the International Energy Agency). This is because we have found no better way of turning iron ore in pure iron (or purer iron) than using carbon in the form coking coal.
We might now talk about carbon dioxide as the “waste product”, but in reality, steel is the main product.
Two tonnes of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere for every tonne steel produced here in Port Talbot.
Port Talbot Steelworks is the nation’s largest carbon emitter, thanks to its two blast furnaces that are the biggest in the country.
Climate change is difficult to understand and hard to tackle because of its disparate causes.
The majority of carbon emissions in the world are distributed across thousands, if not millions of sites. These include the planes that take off every second from international airports, and the exhausts of cars and boiler flues found on streets throughout every country. Steel is different.
One thousand blast furnaces in the world are responsible for producing the highest concentration of mass carbon emissions.
This is why Tata Steel UK, the owner and operator of the mill, is determined to close down these blast furnaces.
But there is a twist to the story. The prospect of demolition of blast furnaces isn’t a story about the steelworks closing but rather, it could be its only hope of survival.
It is not the first time that people have discussed shutting down blast furnaces. Since the beginning of time, there have been occasional crises in steel industry.
In the middle and late 20th centuries, the British iron ore mining and coal mining industries were destroyed.
From the 1990s onwards, there was a rise in cut-price competition in Eastern Europe and China.
The UK let its steel industry contract at a rapid pace while other countries supported their steelworks with subsidies or trade protection.
Except for Venezuela, no other country has seen its steel production drop as quickly as the UK over the past 50 years. However, the collapse in UK steel production is more than just steel.
This is a sign of a larger story: The country has deindustrialized faster than any other country, save for post-Soviet countries. And the less stuff we produce, the lower our demand for steel.
It’s a powerful cocktail: falling demand and rising costs.
Whitehall has been unable to help but shrug their shoulders as the steel sector shrinks. Why should they support a dying, inefficient industry?
A happy side effect of rapid deindustrialisation was that UK’s carbon emissions fell faster than almost any other major economy.Steel is actually quite productive, so calling it inefficient is a mistake.
In fact, steel’s output per hour has outperformed almost every other segment of our gross domestic product.
One argument is that the UK’s recent low productivity results are due to the rapid shift in the economy’s structure towards services.
It seems that the steel industry could have done it differently if they had been on equal footing. Energy is a huge cost for steelmakers. It is also the largest expense for raw materials such as those being tipped into Port Talbot’s blast furnace. This is an incredible price for UK manufacturers.
Add up the wholesale energy prices, carbon taxes, and network costs, and you will see that UK energy costs are almost twice as high as those in Germany, and nearly three times more than those in France.
Many of these prices are set or controlled by the government. This brings us to an important point. The collapse of UK steel production was at least partially a result of the government’s energy policy. As long as energy costs in the UK are higher than elsewhere, there will be an incentive to move production overseas.
This shift in production has had its consequences. Around 25% of the population worked in steel production in the 1970s.
Today, that number is only 39,000. The largest proportion of this figure is found in Wales.
Port Talbot was home to thousands of workers in the past. Today, there are approximately 4,000. These workers work in the blast furnaces, coke ovens, and steelworks, where iron is transformed into steel, reducing its carbon content, and then rolled into huge coils.
Iron is a common element in the blood. Oxidized iron gives iron its red color. However, few people have as much steel as these workers.
Sometimes, their grandparents, great-grandparents, and parents worked at the same place, sometimes doing the exact same job. These are great jobs, and the steelworks pay better than other industries.
Alan Coombs, third-generation Port Talbot steelworker and whose son works at the cold mill on the property, says: “I told my boy: It’s given me an easy living.” “I can still remember my grandfather riding his pushbike home from the coke ovens. My father was made furnace foreman. I still remember feeling proud.
In recent decades, however, many of those who worked here have been living under the sword of Damocles. Many of these jobs are now obsolete due to mechanical progress. Steelmaking has become automated and more mechanised.
Many have left because the country has so little steel. There have been rumors that Port Talbot might close soon.
Other steelworks have also been demolished, including the Redcar steelworks in Teesside. This was to make way for a Freeport. Many feared the same fate for Port Talbot.
What’s the difference this time?
The threat was in the past that the blast furnaces would fall to stop steelmaking in this area. However, the Indian owners of the site have a new plan. They want to demolish the blast furnaces to save the steelworks.
This may sound strange until you make a detour to Rotherham in South Yorkshire.
Since the beginning of time, they have been iron-working in Aldwarke just outside Rotherham.
This particular steelworks has a history that goes back at most two centuries. They made the cast iron used to clad the hull of the steamer SS Great Eastern, owned by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Some stained-glass windows show the ship and blast furnaces. However, the Victorian headquarters building that used to house them was demolished and they now hang in the reception area of a prefabricated office set just outside the gates.
The steelworks are now part of Liberty Steel, an empire headed by controversial investor Sanjeev Gupta. It is fair to say that there have been ups and downs over its history. However, you could also say the same about other steelworks because they all face the same pressures, namely the need to compete against cheap Asian competitors.
Because they produce steel in a completely different way than Port Talbot, the blast furnaces are long gone.
The key lies not in the plant, but in the yard to its side. You will see piles upon piles of scrap metal, including old cars parts and rusty pipes and bars.
Port Talbot’s iron ore mines are fed mostly from the ground; the steelworks at Rotherham rely on scrap.The steel industry was making new steel long before “circular economic” became the favored buzzphrase for environmental economists.
An enormous device known as an electric furnace is used for recycling.
This name is too dull to capture the dramatic nature of what takes place inside these furnaces. The cauldron is filled with three massive graphite electrodes. An enormous electric current of over 50 megawatt-hours is then run through them. The vessel is literally creating lightning storms with its massive graphite electrodes.
Scott Jackson, second-generation worker at the site and now works manager, vividly remembers the first time he saw it in action: “I couldn’t believe the sight I saw.” It was a strange experience. The vibrations, the noise, the vibrations through your body, and the lightning show and firework display on 5 November were all new.
The temperature rises to 1,600C (2.912F) as the fireworks and lightning rage and the steel melts into its molten, purified form.This is similar to the blast furnace. It is an exaggeration. There is more, a complex set of thermodynamic and chemical reactions that we don’t fully understand.
This is far more efficient than blast furnaces when it comes down to carbon emissions. Liberty Steel calls it “GREENSTEEL”, but that is only half the truth.
Although it is much greener than the Port Talbot experience, there are still carbon emissions. Scrap steel and coal are both thrown into the furnace.
Today, electric arc furnaces use natural gas burners to provide around a third of the heat required. This “oxyfuel” injection reduces the time it takes to process steel. It can take up to 40 minutes to complete the process. There are plans to replace gas with green hydrogen. However, this is not a green process at the moment.
The electric arc furnaces are the largest in the country and give us a glimpse of the future.
They account for 68% in all steelmaking in the United States, where they are called mini-mills.
The UK is, however, a little outlier. It relies more on blast furnaces that the US, or even the European average. Only 22.2% of UK steel can be made this way.
It’s probably due to two factors. First, it’s likely to be a legacy of the fact the UK’s coal mining sector was the mainstay of its industry up until the 1980s.
Second, Britain has had the highest electricity prices of any country in the developed world for a long time.
There was no incentive to move from coal-centric blast furnaces to power-centric furnaces, with coal so readily available and electricity so costly.
It is a reminder of the fact that almost everything in heavy industry comes back to energy prices.
The Ukraine War was a major factor in the sudden rise in electricity prices. Rotherham’s furnaces were shut down.
They were initially only turned on at night when they started up, as prices were lower between 11pm-6am than during peak hours.
It’s not surprising. The furnaces in this area drain more power than any other appliance in the UK when they are turned on.
The site is connected to the National Grid via pylons that are plugged into a substation located a few hundred meters south of the steelworks.
However, not all steel is made with electric arc furnaces because of the cost of electricity. Until recently, conventional wisdom held that recycled steel was fine for low-grade applications like reinforcement bars for concrete structures but was not suitable for high-end uses like car chassis.
It can be extremely difficult to remove certain impurities from this iron, especially copper which tends to creep into the scrap and thus into the furnace.
This brings us to a paradox: the steel made here in Rotherham has the highest quality in all of the country.
Port Talbot steel is used primarily for construction, tins and automotive, but this location focuses more on steel that can be used in defense or aerospace applications.
After watching the arc furnace at work, we wander through the Liberty Yard to find one that is aerospace-grade.
These parts will be used to make planes after being melted three more times and then ground into shape.
They love to tell you that every three seconds, a plane is landed with one of their steel grades – 300m in this case – in its landing gear.
This steel is light, strong, and can withstand extreme temperatures. This demonstrates that recycled steel is possible, contrary to common belief. Tata plans to remove its blast furnaces and install two electric arc furnaces.
Just a day before our arrival in March, the Welsh Government announced that a Freeport would be created. It would include Port Talbot and Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire. This was widely regarded as a major breakthrough in what has been one of the most deprived areas of the country.
According to the Freeport plans, there’ll be a hydrogen hub in Milford Haven, which is currently one of the most important liquefied natural gases terminals in the country. There will also be a fleet floating wind turbines in Celtic Sea.
It is an important part of the plan. According to the prospectus it will be able supply a large amount of the steel for those wind turbines.
If it can renovate its site and replace the blast furnaces by electric arc furnaces then that steel will be one of the most environmentally friendly in Europe.With all its buildings and cars, the UK generates enough scrap steel to supply all of its steel needs.
Currently, most of the steel we use is exported overseas to be reprocessed into steel and other products that we import. Why not eliminate the middleman?
If you look closely, you will see a vision that is intoxicatingly positive about how this area of the country could thrive.
Many of the jobs that were lost in blast furnaces will be replaced by highly-paid green steel production jobs.
To become an industrial powerhouse, the region will use its natural geography (the coast, the deepwater ports and the wind off its coast) and its long-standing expertise in engineering, manufacturing, and leverage it.There are also some difficulties.
Predictably, the first comes back to money.
The cost of replacing the blast furnaces with electric arc furnaces in this area could reach PS3bn, particularly if Tata also uses the opportunity to replace other aged steel production plants.
Tata now needs cash from the government. Tata demanded PS1.5bn at first. The government responded with a PS300m offer.
These talks are ongoing. Similar talks are ongoing in Scunthorpe, where British Steel, a Chinese-owned company, operates the UK’s two remaining blast furnaces.
Henrik Adam (Tata’s UK chairman) said that European governments are investing billions in our industry in Germany, France and Spain. “We only ask for a similar deal.
“We want fairness, fair deals for our communities and our people. We also want the UK to be competitive in the future.”
However, many people, particularly free-market economists, find it laughable that steel firms should try to squeeze as much money from the government.
In the post-COVID era, it’s easy for people to forget that a billion pounds can be a lot of money. Enough to finance the construction of many schools and hospitals.
Why should taxpayers subsidise private companies that have a history of losing money and being repeatedly bailed-out?
If Britain resists the temptation to subventionise its industry, it could get cheaper imported steel, which would then ensure that British consumers pay lower prices.
Two answers are available to steelmakers.
They are not in a rush to decarbonise because it is economically sensible, but because the government has mandated net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
This legal imperative isn’t the only thing driving this change. But it’s a large part of the explanation. Steel companies say that the government should shoulder some of the financial responsibility.
Second, almost every government in the world is supporting green steel plans such as these. They want a level playing field.
You can see the point: The French, German, Canadian, Spanish, and Italian governments all throw money at their steel industries.
The US Inflation Reduction Act provides substantial subsidies for green steel. All of this does not mean that state subsidies are the right thing to do. However, it is one of those things that could allow businesses to choose to invest in other countries if the price is right.
However, even if steelmakers succeed in their goals, there are still big questions.
First, it takes less labor to make steel this greener.
Port Talbot currently has a large hangar that houses a basic oxygen convertor. This converts the pig iron from the furnace to pure steel. However, since electric arc furnaces can produce steel directly, this operation is not necessary.
Further job losses could occur if Tata modernizes other parts of its operations. Sky News has learned that Port Talbot’s workforce could drop from 4,000 to just 1,000 according to internal estimates.
The second problem is that this method of steelmaking, as we have seen in Rotherham isn’t completely green.
To bolster steel, iron ore pellets must still be used. You also need to burn natural gas and coal. However, some of this can be replaced by zero-carbon fuel.
Although there will be less carbon emissions than in the past, they will continue to exist. The industry may need to switch to “direct reduced iron” to truly produce green steel. This is where hydrogen is used to remove oxygen from iron ore.
While none of the major steelworks in Britain is currently considering a DRI facility, a prototype operation in Sweden is.
Whitehall isn’t clear on the government’s strategy.
Since Theresa May’s legislation to make net zero zero by 2050, we have seen a series of Conservative administrations with very different industrial strategies. The culmination of this is a prime minister who seems more interested in finance than manufacturing and a secretary to the business community who said in her first interview, that Britain should not have any steel industries.
The more you dig into the government’s policies, the more confusing it becomes.
The paradox is that, even though the country’s largest steelmaker claims it will demolish its blast furnaces and eliminate the long-term requirement for coking coke coal, the government approved the construction of the first coal mine since decades. It will be digging for coking coke coal in Cumbria.
This would make sense if, for example, there was a blueprint for Scunthorpe’s blast furnace conversion so that carbon emissions could be sequestered under the North Sea. However, this plan doesn’t appear to be in place at the moment.
It’s a little confusing, and it is not the best thing for companies or governments that are contemplating huge sums of money.
There are potential markets for UK-made stainless steel.
One of the most important infrastructure projects in the present era is the deployment of offshore wind turbines off the coast of Britain.
Steel of all types is the main ingredient in those turbines, especially the steel found in towers rising from the sea.
It turns out, however, that very little of the steel used in the turbines found throughout the country is from this region.
Why? It all comes down to the high cost of energy and the difficulty in importing low-cost products.
Liberty Steel was considering building its own wind turbine at the Dalzell steelworks in Scotland. However, it discovered that the numbers didn’t add up despite the fact that it was producing its own steel plate.
Jeff Kabel, Liberty’s chief transformation officer says that it is not cost-competitive. “Between energy and imports, it would be cheaper to build our own wind farm right now.
“I have looked at the cost structure as an independent investor in this project. It’s on the line, and it shouldn’t be on it.”
The vast majority of the steel used in wind turbines was made in Asia, and then exported around the globe. This is how the market has worked up to now.
This is one reason why wind turbines have fallen in price so dramatically in recent years.
However, it comes at a cost. Port Talbot blast furnaces produce two tonnes of carbon per tonne steel. But those in Asia and Ukraine produce three to four tonnes each for every tonne steel.
It is possible that Britain could supply a large amount of its wind turbine fleet’s steel if it quickly built up green steel facilities. Problem is, steel will be much more expensive than the cheaper stuff used to build these structures.
The already high-priced electricity rates could go comparatively higher.
It does however highlight another important point.
When considering the future of steel it’s tempting to concentrate on the primary processes that convert raw materials into iron or steel. In fact, that’s exactly what I did in the majority of this article.
However, the steelworks must also consider other processes. Is that steel being used to make the right products?
There are over a thousand varieties. While the UK steel mills made the best types, they were used to make rails and cars bodies, and food tins. Perhaps there will need to be another mix in the future.
As we head to the final stop of our tour at the Port Talbot steelworks, we are contemplating these thoughts.
We’ve seen iron ore transformed into pig iron, then blast with pure oxygen to make low-carbon steel.
As the liquid steel turned to a solid slab, we watched it being poured into ladles, then into casting molds.
We watched from above the metal, still over a thousand degrees heat, as it rolled towards the oxygen flame to cut it into slabs. Then we watched as each slab was removed towards the next stage of its journey.
Next, we enter the hot-rolled strip mill. Here they take those red-hot steel slabs and send them down a line to squeeze and roll between huge mechanical presses.
A thick slab of 30-foot length ends up as a rolled coil made from thin metal. Sometimes it can be a kilometre thick.
It is a remarkable process to see – a surreal combination banging machinery with sci-fi precision.
If Tata’s plans succeed, this mill will be able to produce thicker coils with some modification that could be used in helping to build the floating wind turbines out in the Celtic Sea.
They could make steel with just a fraction of the carbon dioxide it emits today if they invest in electric furnaces.
There’s a tempting prize.
The UK could be the first developed country to have its steel sector (nearly) fully decarbonized. It was the pioneer in using coking coal to make steel in the 18th century.
It’s also possible for things to go in a completely different direction.
It is possible that the country that created large-scale steel production could be the first industrialized nation to allow its steel industry go extinct.