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Feeding the Furnaces

By Ken McEntee

More than 16 million tons of new annual steelmaking capacity is coming online in the U.S. Finding enough prime scrap to feed the furnaces may be a challenge, but new demand is good news for ferrous recyclers.

Between 2021 and 2024, about 16.5 million tons of new electric-arc furnace (EAF) steelmaking capacity—totaling about $20 billion in investments—is expected to come online in the United States. Almost all of those new projects will require prime scrap as their main feedstock, but it is also good news for processors of obsolete ferrous scrap, said Paul Lowrey, founder and managing director of Steel Research Associates LLC (SRA), Pittsburgh.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Lowrey said. “If you are selling prime scrap, you should be super excited about all this new capacity because your prime scrap is going to be sold out for a long time. Other scrap recyclers may not benefit as much, but they will benefit from an increased need for obsolete scrap.”

The American steel industry, Lowrey said, is going through a “fundamental transformation” of new technology replacing old—EAFs replacing outdated blast furnaces—and steel and recycling business consolidation across the industry. Many mergers and acquisitions are geared to address raw material challenges to feeding the new mills.

“Almost all new steel capacity is [EAF] steelmaking technology, which is the newer, cleaner, greener way of making steel that uses electricity and ferrous scrap as its two main inputs,” said Philip Bell, president of the Steel Manufacturers Association (SMA), Washington, D.C. “EAFs account for more than 71% of all steel production in the U.S. When this new capacity comes online and some of the inefficient capacity gets idled in the next two or three years, that number should be over 75%.”

In fact, Lowrey noted, the last blast furnace built in the United States started up around 1968.

“They’re too expensive to build and maintain, and they’re dirty,” he said. “Since 1968, all of the new steelmaking capacity in the U.S. has been EAF.”

According to SMA and SRA data, almost 13 million tons—or almost 80%— of new capacity coming on through 2024 will be flat-rolled steel, which requires prime scrap or prime scrap substitutes like direct-reduced iron (DRI), hot-briquetted iron (HBI) or pig iron.

“If you produce long products like rebar, you can produce your steel with 95% scrap or more—in some cases 100%,” Bell said. “But a flat-roll mill is going to need a combination of prime scrap probably anywhere from 30% to 50%—they’ll probably use about 10% to 30% of ore-based metallics like DRI, HBI and pig iron—and then maybe 20% to 40% will be heavy melt or obsolete scrap.”

The most recent project announcements were plans by Nucor Corp., Charlotte, North Carolina, for a 3-million-ton-per-year mill in West Virginia and a 3-million-ton mill that U.S. Steel, Pittsburgh, announced for its recently acquired Big River Steel Co. mill in Arkansas.

“What’s unique about both of those investments are that they are the largest capital expenditure investments in those states’ histories,” Bell said.

Seize the moment

Bell cited several reasons why steel companies are now investing in new EAF mills. One reason is the trend toward cleaner manufacturing. Another, he said, is a push for renewed U.S. infrastructure as illustrated by the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed last summer.

“We’re seeing a major transformation that involves the modernization, decarbonization and electrification of the steel industry,” Bell said. “Steelmakers are trying to seize the moment as we see a bigger emphasis on lower-CO2-intensity steel. A lot of folks don’t realize that the average age of a Chinese steel mill is about 15 years, whereas the average age of an American steel mill is about 30 years. In order for us to compete on a global basis, we need new clean capacity to come online. A great thing about the EAF steelmaking process is the fact that it has lower carbon intensity than traditional steelmaking, and you have the dual benefit of using ferrous scrap. So that helps with recycling efforts and decarbonization efforts.”

Bell said that while most of the new capacity is for flat-rolled steel that will be used in the production of vehicles, appliances and other goods, some of the new production capacity will be for structural steel plate and rebar, “which is very important for building our nation’s infrastructure in a sustainable way.”

Finally, Bell said, steel companies have the money to spend.

“Steelmakers have a unique history of investing capital in both good times and bad,” he said. “All of the steel companies that are involved in this investment, whether it’s Nucor, U.S. Steel or Steel Dynamics [Fort Wayne, Indiana], have very strong balance sheets and they have great management teams.”

Driven by cars

Bell pointed out that much of the new capacity is being built in proximity to automobile plants.

“When you decide on the location of a steel mill, you want to be near your customers,” he said. “So in the case of Steel Dynamics, which just commissioned a new steel mill in Sinton, Texas, they want to work with the Mexican automotive market, so that’s a good reason for them to be there. A lot of the new mills are in the South, where a lot of auto manufacturers have located because of states’ incentive packages and a better labor environment because these are right-to-work states. And it’s also close to the Gulf Coast, which is important if you need to access natural gas or import pig iron or DRI.”

The feedstock challenge

The new U.S. capacity is coming online at a time when securing feedstock appears to be challenging, Lowrey said. The shortage, he said, will be in prime scrap, such as the scrap generated at automobile stamping plants.

“We have plenty of obsolete scrap available,” Lowrey said. “But prime scrap is going to be the bottleneck. The bottom line is we don’t have enough prime scrap in this country. We’re not even close because we’ve been offshoring manufacturing for the last two decades. The mills can try to import prime scrap but there is going to be competition. The whole world wants to go green with steelmaking, which means they will be building EAFs, and everybody is going to be looking for prime scrap. There is no silver bullet to the prime scrap shortage. It’s going to be a little bit of this, a little bit of that. This is all in a state of flux and nobody knows what the answer is going to be.”

The new U.S. EAFs will make two types of steel products:

· High-quality flat-rolled or sheet steel; and

· Commodity long products, such as rebar.

“When you make commodity long products, you don’t consume much, or any, prime scrap, but when you make flat-rolled, you need a lot of it,” Lowrey said. “Everyone operates a melt shop differently, but including prime scrap substitutes, it can easily be up to 50% or 60% of the mix.”

That will boost demand for feedstocks like DRI and HBI, Lowrey said.

According to the International Iron Metallics Association (IIMA), Lewes, England, DRI is the product of the direct reduction of iron ore in the solid state by carbon monoxide and hydrogen derived from natural gas or coal. “Most DRI plants are part of integrated steel minimills, located adjacent to the EAF steel plant,” IIMA said. “Some steel companies ship DRI from their captive direct-reduction plants to their remote steel mills and a small volume of DRI is sold to third parties.”

Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., Cleveland, last summer started up a $1 billion DRI facility in Toledo, Ohio. According to Lowrey, the company planned the facility mainly to produce DRI to be sold on the market.

“They changed their mind,” he said. “They now consume most, if not all, of it internally. It’s a green steel initiative to get their carbon footprint reduced.”

Other U.S. DRI plants include Nucor’s facility in St. James Parish, Louisiana, and Voestalpine Texas LLC’s operation in Portland, Texas.

“Another way that you can solve the prime scrap problem is to put pig iron, which is the output of a blast furnace, into the EAF,” he said. “The problem is that the mills will have to import pig iron because there isn’t a lot being made domestically.”

In January 2021, Stelco Inc., Hamilton, Ontario, started a new 1-million-ton-per-year pig iron caster at its Lake Erie Works facility in Nanticoke, Ontario.

“With the expansion of EAF production in North America, the demand for iron units is placing increased pressure on the existing supply of scrap steel, making pig iron an increasingly highly valued commodity in the production of EAF steel,” the company said in a press release. “Stelco’s new pig iron caster enables it to access this market and enhances its complete suite of products ranging from pig iron, to semifinished steel, to hot-rolled sheet, to high value-added cold-rolled and coated products, as well as advanced high-strength steels.”

This month, U.S. Steel announced a $60 million investment to produce up to 500,000 tons of pig iron annually at its facility in Gary, Indiana, to feed its EAFs. Once complete, the Gary pig iron production is expected to provide nearly half of Big River Steel’s ore-based metallics needs.

“U.S. Steel’s low-cost iron ore is an important strategic advantage for the company,” said David B. Burritt, president and CEO. “Our ability to control this important steelmaking input is a valuable competitive differentiator for our growing fleet of electric-arc furnaces.”

U.S. Steel said the decision to self-fund pig iron production rather than contract it will enhance Big River Steel’s cost structure while adding value at Gary Works by driving blast furnace efficiencies without reducing the plant’s raw steel output.

While Burritt cited the low cost of pig iron, Lowrey said DRI, HBI and pig iron are more expensive to use than prime scrap.

The next precious metal

Steel producers recently have acquired scrap businesses to help secure their feedstock supplies.

In November, for example, Cleveland-Cliffs acquired Ferrous Processing and Trading Co. (FPT), Detroit, a major supplier of prime scrap. FPT processes about 3 million tons of scrap per year, about half of which is prime grade, Cleveland-Cliffs said

“Cliffs expects to grow its prime scrap presence through its existing relationships with industrial steel consumers,” said Lourenco Goncalves, chairman, president and CEO. “The way the scrap business historically worked has now changed for good. With our closing of the FPT acquisition, we are now immediately focused on amplifying the value of what we believe is the next precious metal. To drive this, we have already begun the dialogue with our steel customers with a focus on increasing our scrap offtake from them under a real closed-loop proposition.”

Also in November, BlueScope Steel Ltd., Melbourne, Australia, acquired the ferrous scrap steel recycling business of MetalX LLC, Fort Wayne, Indiana, for $240 million. The two acquired locations, in Ohio and Indiana, already were the largest suppliers of the North Star BlueScope Steel subsidiary in Delta, Ohio, which is expanding its flat-rolled steelmaking capacity by almost 1 million tons per year.

“North Star will soon move from a (2.2-million-ton) per annum mill to almost (3.3 million tons) per annum, and as the business expands, securing scrap is the right play,” said Mark Vassella, CEO and managing director. “North Star has a diverse base of scrap steel suppliers. MetalX is our largest, currently supplying around 20% of the scrap used by North Star. As a steel-recycling electric-arc furnace producer of hot-rolled coil utilizing low-emissions electricity, North Star is highly carbon efficient. This acquisition further enhances BlueScope’s sustainability profile by bringing in-house part of North Star’s scrap collection.”

Steel Dynamics (SDI) in August 2020 acquired Zimmer S.A. de C.V., Monterrey, Mexico, as part of its raw material procurement strategy to support its new Texas flat-rolled steel mill, which recently began operating. Zimmer ships about 500,000 tons of scrap annually from six scrap processing facilities positioned near high-volume industrial scrap sources throughout central and northern Mexico, in addition to several third-party scrap processing locations, SDI said.

“Combined with our existing metals recycling presence in Mexico, the acquisition of Zimmer expands our commercial presence in the region and strengthens our raw material supply strategy, allowing for cost-effective ferrous scrap procurement for our new Texas flat-roll steel mill,” said Mark Millett, SDI president and CEO.

“Some of these EAF [operators] already have very sophisticated, captive scrap operations,” Bell said. “Nucor owns DJJ [The David J. Joseph Co., Cincinnati] and SDI owns OmniSource [Fort Wayne, Indiana], and companies like Commercial Metals Co. [Irving, Texas] have their origins in scrap recycling. Gerdau [Long Steel North America, Tampa, Florida] has a very robust network of shredders that it owns throughout the country. So you’re seeing steel mills take matters into their own hands from a supply-chain standpoint,” Bell said.

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