April 2015

Research and development in the Australian steel industry

  • By Oscar Gregory, Director, Steel Research Hub

The latest programs from the Steel Research Hub

In December 2013 the federal government, through the Australian Research Council (ARC), awarded a grant of A$5 million over five years to fund research in support of the Australian Steel Industry. The grant, awarded under the Industrial Transformation Research Hubs (ITRH) scheme, was in addition to over $7.5 million in cash already pledged by the industrial and university partners of the ARC Research Hub for Australian Steel Manufacturing, or Steel Research Hub.

The Industrial Transformation Research Hubs scheme represents a relatively new funding opportunity for research and development and long-term collaborators BlueScope and the University of Wollongong seized the opportunity to both leverage significant government funding and to expand their list of collaborators.  The resultant Steel Research Hub includes Arrium (OneSteel), Bisalloy Steels, Cox Architecture, the Australian Steel Institute and Lysaght as industrial partners, as well as the University of Queensland, University of Newcastle, RMIT University, Swinburne University of Technology and Monash University.

After a controversial start, which saw the ITRH scheme prioritising only the food industry for funding, the scheme has gained momentum over the subsequent two rounds, adding mining and mining services; oil and gas, including petroleum; manufacturing; and medical devices and biotechnology to its list of priorities.

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Next generation ZINCALUME Steel Strip leaving metal coating pot at Port Kembla. Photo courtesy of Grant Ellmers.

In addition to the Steel Research Hub, round two saw funding to two manufacturing hubs, and round three funded a total of seven hubs spread across all priority areas with the exception of medical devices.

The mining industry was particularly well embraced in the third round with grants for ‘Advanced Technologies for Australian Iron Ore’ involving BHP Billiton, FLSmidth and Nagrom; ‘Australian Copper-Uranium’ partnered with BHP Billiton Olympic Dam and DSTO; and ‘Transforming the Mining Value Chain’ including AMIRA International, BHP Billiton Olympic Dam, Corescan and Newcrest Mining.

The Steel Research Hub takes an integrated, value chain-wide approach to innovation in the sector.

The scheme clearly has the strong support of the federal Minister for Industry, Ian MacFarlane, who officially launched the Steel Research Hub at a well-attended event held at Parliament House in September last year. Mr MacFarlane noted that: ‘The Australian Government is preparing a National Industry Investment and Competitiveness Agenda to set the superstructure for industry growth, in particular to encourage greater collaboration between business and researchers.’ He further commented that: ‘This collaboration is essential to ensuring Australia’s competitiveness in global markets and in new industries focused on sophisticated and high value-added manufacturing.  Our focus must be on our areas of competitive advantage where Australia has an edge over our competitors.’  That support is of critical importance to companies choosing to engage with the ITRH as a mechanism to leverage their R&D dollar and access external expertise.  Balancing the pull between being flexible for industry and maintaining enough focus to achieve new knowledge in fundamental processes is a challenge that the Steel Research Hub, and all Hubs, will face over the coming years to ensure the value and longevity of the scheme.  Certainly, BlueScope, cornerstone partner of the Steel Research Hub with a 43 per cent (cash and in-kind) stake, will be keeping a keen eye on this.

Research programs

Since launching in September 2014 our members have been hastening to kick off the Hub’s research programs.  With aims to inject innovation into the steel manufacturing sector, build capacity in the steel industry and lift Australia’s global competitiveness, the Steel Research Hub takes an integrated, value chain-wide approach to innovation in the sector.  Four programs of research are in progress, including Managing Innovation in the Australian Steel Industry, Market-Focused Product Innovation, Innovative Coating Technologies, and Sustainable Steel Manufacturing.

Managing Innovation in the Australian Steel Industry

Program A is an overarching program of research investigating innovation management and strategy in the steel value chain. Research will focus on elucidating and reducing the risks to successful commercialisation of key process and product innovations. This will be achieved by carefully mapping the patterns of co-innovation, co-creation of value and adoption dependencies, and identifying and eliminating systematic risks in the innovation and commercialisation processes.

Market-focused Product Innovation

Program B will optimise the market interface to clearly define end-user need, thereby ensuring that product developments are market-driven. This will be achieved through enhanced customer engagement in both the development of ideas and subsequent product development. In this way, the resources and research capacity of the Hub will become available to a broader range of Australian small and medium sized enterprises (SME). Product development initiatives will lead to improved high strength hot rolled products, coated products for Australian building markets, and surface engineering of coatings.

Innovative Coating Technologies

Program C will strengthen existing capability and develop breakthrough technology in the field of continuous coil coating for steel. Fundamental knowledge on processing of advanced hot-dip coating alloys will be explored. Surface engineering of coatings will lead to novel modified surface technologies resulting in world-leading chromium-free passivation systems for Al-Zn coated steel.

Sustainable Steel Manufacturing

Perhaps of greatest interest to readers is Program D which aims to transform Australia’s competitiveness in iron and steelmaking, with attention to both economic and environmental sustainability. With an overarching focus on increasing utilisation of Australian raw materials, projects in this area will explore economic sustainability through enhanced productivity and flexibility of raw material usage in steelmaking (Project D1), and environmental sustainability through lower greenhouse gas emissions and greater recycling of plant waste (Project D2).

Sustainable Steel Manufacturing has a strong focus on fundamental studies to address issues facing the integrated plants of both BlueScope and OneSteel, thereby ensuring Australian steel production remains internationally competitive and environmentally sustainable.

The increased utilisation of Australian raw materials strengthens the Australian economy and has a positive effect on the balance of trade. Research in Project D1 aims to investigate the sintering and assimilation behaviour of complex raw material blends that incorporate conventional Australian iron ores, magnetites, concentrates, fluxes, waste streams and recycled materials, and to identify the optimal operational conditions for sintering with respect to blast furnace conditions. The knowledge generated will give ironmakers more flexibility in reducing costs and ensures confidence in greater use of Australian raw materials.

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No 5 blast furnace at Port Kembla. Photo courtesy of BlueScope.

The application of advanced process analysis and process control techniques offers significant opportunity to reduce energy consumption, and resource and capital usage, across the major steelmaking process units. Internationally, researchers are increasingly adopting tools made viable by contemporary computational capabilities. Two key technologies will be applied in Project D1 to ensure highly efficient blast furnace operation and prolonged extension of the blast furnace life:

(1) Data mining: a rapidly evolving field, but an approach that is highly suited to analysis of the large datasets and complex non-linear phenomena associated with major iron and steel process units

(2) Discrete particle simulation: which is extremely computationally intensive but ideally suited to the analysis and optimisation of the granular flows that dominate primary steelmaking.

Steel product quality, a major driver of innovation in primary steelmaking, is also addressed in Project D1. Increasingly stringent downstream quality requirements must be met whilst accommodating natural and cost-driven changes in raw materials specifications. This has placed particular demands on the processing of iron to steel, with fundamental studies necessary to optimise the partitioning of species such as phosphorous and titanium between metal and slag. Furthermore, understanding the mixing and separation of liquid and solid phases is critical to steel cleanness. It is also important in terms of slag utilisation, since decreasing the iron carryover in blast furnace slag will not only improve yields but also enable the slag to be used as a limestone replacement in cement, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

The application of dynamic plant-wide energy balance modelling will open new opportunities for reducing resource consumption and GHG generation.

In terms of environmental sustainability, previous plant-wide energy optimisation efforts have focussed on static (long-term) heat and mass balances. A new dynamic energy balance approach that recognises the need for process integration is proposed in Project D2. It is recognised that there is a tightly integrated gas network between energy producers and users, characterised by highly time-variant energy consumption and GHG generation. The application of dynamic plant-wide energy balance modelling will open new opportunities for reducing resource consumption and GHG generation. In terms of recycling initiatives, in-house recycling of steel plant waste is often constrained by the cyclic load of key elements such as zinc and phosphorous. Coupled with changing raw material specifications, eg the increasing trend in phosphorous content of Australian ores, there is a need to investigate, understand and predict the characteristics of evolving waste streams, and their impact on the properties of carrier products like sinter, and the effect on steel processing in general. This new understanding will realise the value of the waste to the industry and minimise waste product going to landfill.

Capacity building and growth

In addition to more than thirty university and industry based researchers contributing to research within the Steel Research Hub, the A$12.6 million total cash investment provides support for 14 post-doctoral researchers and at least 24 PhD scholarships, as well as project costs, across the programs.  A priority for the Hub will be to ensure that this new cohort of researchers spend time embedded with our various industry partners, to encourage closer collaboration and to engender a
thorough understanding of the industrial environment.

In parallel with the research programs described, the Steel Research Hub will also be working on longer term goals.  We aim to continue to draw together researchers with appropriate expertise, from across the country, and eventually internationally.  We will work to engage SMEs within our industry in the innovation process.  We will be seeking growth within the current timeframe, as well as seeking to extend our funding beyond the initial five year period.  We aim to be the centrepiece for collaborative steel research in Australia and as such, we would welcome involvement and collaboration with interested organisations within the minerals sector.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Professor Brian Monaghan and Dr David Nolan for their contributions to this article.

To find out more about the Steel Research Hub visit our website at: steelresearchhub.uow.edu.au or contact Oscar Gregory via oscarg@uow.edu.au 

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