Tracking Coal through the Process of Steel Making

Granite City, Illinois is the quintessential American small town. It has a population of about 26,000 and for more than 100 years, its economy has largely been dependent on the local U.S. Steel manufacturing plant. For most of that time the community lived with the assurance that comes with an economy centered on basic industry.

That assurance was shaken three years ago when the steel plant laid off most of the 2,000 workers, leaving only a small skeleton crew. The town was shaken at its core. Rosemarie Brown, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of Southwestern Madison County, said the closure was “devastating.”

“The Granite City Works is vital to the community,” Brown said. “In fact, the town was founded around the plant in 1894.” Brown said that in the year after the plant effectively shut down, the Chamber lost 26 member companies.

All that changed when the new Trump administration shifted U.S. trade policy and began taking actions to support the domestic steel industry. Earlier this year, U.S. Steel announced it was restarting both furnaces at the Granite City plant and began recalling laid-off workers. Approximately 800 have returned to work in just the past few months with just one furnace online. More will be needed when the second furnace goes back into production later this year.

But this article is not the story of a small town in the middle of America. It is an article about the two industries that largely created the town and continue to carry it on their shoulders – steel manufacturing and coal.

The Role of Coal in Steelmaking
Steel is primarily produced using one of two methods: blast furnace or electric arc furnace. Both methods of steel production rely on coal, one directly and one indirectly.

Metallurgical coal (or coking coal) is the type of bituminous coal used to produce coke to make steel. Quality characteristics of met coal include low ash and sulfur content, and volatile matter within narrow parameters. The three main categories of metallurgical coal are: hard coking coal, semi-soft coking coal and pulverized coal injection (PCI) coal. Cokemakers often use blends of up to 20 different coals in order to offer a consistent product.

The blast furnace is the first step in producing steel from iron, and is used to make nearly 75 percent of steel worldwide. According to the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), the first blast furnaces appeared in the 14th century and produced one ton of steel per day. Although today’s equipment has improved and higher production rates can be achieved, the processes inside the blast furnace remain the same. The blast furnace uses coke, iron ore and limestone to produce pig iron, which is then converted to steel. After casting and rolling or coating, the steel is delivered as coil, plate, sections or bars. Steel made in an EAF uses electricity to melt recycled steel.

“Coal is a key part of the coke-making process,” said Lisa Harrison, senior vice president of communications of AISI. “The coal is crushed and ground into a powder and then charged into an oven where it is heated to approximately 1800°F in the absence of oxygen. As the oven is heated, the coal begins to melt so most of the volatile matter such as oil, tar, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur are removed.