A strong alloy of iron and carbon, steel has a history like no other material on earth. While the exact date steel was first used remains unknown, iron weapons such as knives dating back to 3000 BC have been found…
Old methods of producing iron in forges and furnaces dating back to the 14th century AD from a combination of metallic iron and charcoal ash occasionally resulted, by accident, not in wrought iron but true steel, when iron absorbed large amounts of carbon. Evolving over the years, the refining of molten iron grew with the invention of the Bessemer furnace in 1855, and production continues to become more streamlined and efficient to this day.
Today, steel is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest indicators of a nation’s overall economic development, largely due to the vital role it plays in the creation of buildings and infrastructure. With demand for steel rising in times of economic stability – such as that seen in India and China in the early to mid-2000s, when worldwide demand for steel shot up six percent – it remains one of the most used, and most recycled, materials on earth.
Vital to the economy
Despite its ups and downs in the world’s economy, steel remains one of the most newsworthy topics, particularly in recent months. In late October Barry Zekelman, Executive Chairman and Chief Executive Officer at Zekelman Industries – North America’s biggest independent steel pipe and tube manufacturer, with sales exceeding $2.7 billion – stated Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is letting her ego interfere with ending American tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum. Respected in the industry, Windsor Ontario native Zekelman was not at all reluctant to state his opinion about how Canada’s Liberal government is mishandling the important commodity and the impact of U.S. tariffs on the company’s operations. “They have stalled and blown this big time, and our consumers and our industry in Canada is suffering because of it,” he stated to Members of Parliament on the standing committee on international trade. “We’re waiting for someone’s ego. They need to get into a room and get the deal done.” Stating that the issue can be solved, Zekelman remained frustrated with the 25 percent tariff.
The heated debate over U.S. tariffs on Canadian steel is a reflection of just how vital the material is to continued economic growth and employment, not just in Canada, but worldwide. Produced in many forms, including sheet, rolls, bars, and plates, steel’s uses are virtually limitless for many reasons. Cost-effective, durable, and with high tensile strength, steel is used in everything from reinforced concrete (rebar and wire mesh) to appliances, electrical wires, automobiles, trains, ships, surgical instruments, weapons, and more.
As the industry is dominated by massive manufacturers worldwide, many steel producers operate in more than just one country. ArcelorMittal, the world’s leading steel and mining company, produces sustainable steel for industries ranging from construction to household appliances, and has a presence in over 60 nations. Like ArcelorMittal, the steel industry is led by other multinationals, many based in China, Japan, and Korea, including Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation (NSSMC) – the world’s second-largest steel producer by volume – the Hebei Iron and Steel Group, and Baosteel, to name just a few. Other giants, like India-based Tata Steel and the Steel Authority of India (SAIL), have histories going back decades, tens of thousands of employees and, in the case of SAIL, expect to produce 50 million tonnes of steel per annum by 2025.
Not to be outdone, there are many well-known American counterparts, including Charlotte, North Carolina-headquartered Nucor Corporation and the legendary United States Steel Corporation, better known simply as U.S. Steel. Founded in 1901, the Pittsburgh-headquartered corporation is known worldwide for producing iron ore and various forms of steel, particularly flat rolled steel and tubular steel.
Overseeing the industry is the Brussels-based World Steel Association (worldsteel). A non-profit group, worldsteel represents over 160 steel producers – nine of them the largest on earth – along with a host of steel research institutes and regional and national steel industry associations. According to worldsteel, 2017 saw global crude steel production of 1,689.4 million tonnes (Mt).
The word ‘steel’ itself does a disservice to this amazing material. While many use the word ‘steel’ generically, there are actually 3,500 different grades of steel, each with unique physical, chemical, and environmental properties, and these are manufactured into many different shapes and thicknesses for specific applications. Over 75 percent of the approximately 3,500 grades of steel available today did not even exist just two decades ago.
Just as there are countless uses for steel, there are many available shapes, sizes, thicknesses and types of the product available. The South Korea-California joint venture company Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO) sells steel plate, hot rolled steel, cold rolled steel, electrical steel, wire rod, and stainless steel products. Others, like the China-based Forbes-listed Shagang Group, produce almost the same amount of iron annually as they do steel. JFE Holdings Inc. (TYO) – the parent company of one of the world’s largest integrated steel producers, JFE Steel Corp. – produces iron powders along with steel sheets and stainless steel.
Different grades and shapes of steel are used for various applications. Long steel, for example, is found in today’s buildings, bridges, railway tracks, and wires. Weathering steel is used for architectural purposes, train cars, outdoor sculptures, and intermodal containers, which are large, standardized shipping containers made to be transported via ship, rail, and truck. Another steel type, stainless steel, is extremely versatile, as it is renowned for its resistance to staining and corrosion. Due to these properties and the fact that it requires very little maintenance, stainless steels are often rolled into many shapes including bars, wires, sheets, and tubing before being made into products. Used to manufacture cutlery, surgical instruments, and replacement joints, stainless steel is also used for large-scale projects such as storage tanks in the food and chemical industry, since these tanks can be easily sanitized. Likewise, stainless steel is resistant to bacteria, making it ideal for use in operating rooms and in other processes where surfaces must be absolutely clean.
Whether it is rolled, in sheet form, in bars, or other forms, steel will continue to be one of the most popular materials for manufacturing on earth.