Arc furnaces range in size from small units of approximately one ton capacity (used in foundries for producing cast iron products) up to about 400 ton units used for secondary steelmaking. Arc furnaces used in research laboratories and by dentists may have a capacity of only a few dozen grams. Electric arc furnace temperatures can be up to 1,800 degrees Celsius. Arc furnaces differ from induction furnaces in that the charge material is directly exposed to the electric arc, and the current in the furnace terminals passes through the charged material.
The first electric arc furnaces were developed by Paul Héroult, of France, with a commercial plant established in the United States in 1907. Initially "electric steel" was a specialty product for such uses as machine tools and spring steel. Arc furnaces were also used to prepare calcium carbide for use in carbide lamps.
In the 19th century, a number of men had employed an electric arc to melt iron. Sir Humphry Davy conducted an experimental demonstration in 1810; welding was investigated by Pepys in 1815; Pinchon attempted to create an electrothermic furnace in 1853; and, in 1878 - 79, Sir William Siemens took out patents for electric furnaces of the arc type. The Stessano electric furnace is an arc type furnace that usually rotates to mix the bath. The Girod furnace is similar to the Héroult furnace.
While EAFs were widely used in World War II for production of alloy steels, it was only later that electric steelmaking began to expand. The low capital cost for a mini-mill - around US$140-200 per ton of annual installed capacity, compared with US$1,000 per ton of annual installed capacity for an integrated steel mill - allowed mills to be quickly established in war-ravaged Europe, and also allowed them to successfully compete with the big United States steelmakers, such as Bethlehem Steel and U.S. Steel, for low-cost, carbon steel 'long products' (structural steel, rod and bar, wire and fasteners) in the U.S. market. When Nucor - now one of the largest steel producers in the U.S. - decided to enter the long products market in 1969, they chose to start up a mini-mill, with an EAF as its steelmaking furnace, soon followed by other manufacturers. Whilst Nucor expanded rapidly in the Eastern US, the companies that followed them into mini-mill operations concentrated on local markets for long products, where the use of an EAF allowed the plants to vary production according to local demand. This pattern was also followed globally, with EAF steel production primarily used for long products, while integrated mills, using blast furnaces and basic oxygen furnaces, cornered the markets for 'flat products' - sheet steel and heavier steel plate. In 1987, Nucor made the decision to expand into the flat products market, still using the EAF production route. The fact that an EAF uses scrap steel as feedstock, instead of raw iron, has impacted the quality of the flat product made from EAF steel, because of limited control over the impurities in the scrap.
The hearth may be hemispherical in shape, or in an eccentric bottom tapping furnace (see below), the hearth has the shape of a halved egg. In modern meltshops, the furnace is often raised off the ground floor, so that ladles and slag pots can easily be maneuvered under either end of the furnace. Separate from the furnace structure is the electrode support and electrical system, and the tilting platform on which the furnace rests. Two configurations are possible: the electrode supports and the roof tilt with the furnace, or are fixed to the raised platform.
A typical alternating current furnace has three electrodes. Electrodes are round in section, and typically in segments with threaded couplings, so that as the electrodes wear, new segments can be added. The arc forms between the charged material and the electrode, and the charge is heated both by current passing through the charge and by the radiant energy evolved by the arc. The electrodes are automatically raised and lowered by a positioning system, which may use either electric winch hoists or hydraulic cylinders. The regulating system maintains approximately constant current and power input during the melting of the charge, even though scrap may move under the electrodes as it melts. The mast arms holding the electrodes carry heavy busbars, which may be hollow water-cooled copper pipes carrying current to the electrode holders. Modern systems use 'hot arms', where the whole arm carries the current, increasing efficiency. These can be made from copper-clad steel or aluminium. Since the electrodes move up and down automatically for regulation of the arc, and are raised to allow removal of the furnace roof, heavy water-cooled cables connect the bus tubes/arms with the transformer located adjacent to the furnace. To protect the transformer from heat, it is installed in a vault.
The furnace is built on a tilting platform so that the liquid steel can be poured into another vessel for transport. The operation of tilting the furnace to pour molten steel is called "tapping". Originally, all steelmaking furnaces had a tapping spout closed with refractory that washed out when the furnace was tilted, but often modern furnaces have an eccentric bottom tap-hole (EBT) to reduce inclusion of nitrogen and slag in the liquid steel. These furnaces have a taphole that passes vertically through the hearth and shell, and is set off-centre in the narrow 'nose' of the egg-shaped hearth. It is filled with refractory sand, such as olivine, when it is closed off. Modern plants may have two shells with a single set of electrodes that can be transferred between the two; one shell preheats scrap while the other shell is utilised for meltdown. Other DC-based furnaces have a similar arrangement, but have electrodes for each shell and one set of electronics.
AC furnaces usually exhibit a pattern of hot- and cold-spots around the hearth perimeter, with the cold-spots located between the electrodes. Modern furnaces mount oxygen-fuel burners in the sidewall and use them to provide chemical energy to the cold-spots, making the heating of the steel more uniform. Additional chemical energy is provided by injecting oxygen and carbon into the furnace, historically through lances in the slag door, but often today through multiple wall-mounted injection units.
A mid-sized modern steelmaking furnace would have a transformer rated about 60,000,000 volt-amperes (60 MVA), with a secondary voltage between 400 and 900 volts and a secondary current in excess of 44,000 amperes. In a modern shop such a furnace would be expected to produce a quantity of 80 metric tonnes of liquid steel in approximately 60 minutes from charging with cold scrap to tapping the furnace. In comparison, basic oxygen furnaces can have a capacity of 150-300 tonnes per batch, or 'heat', and can produce a heat in 30-40 minutes. Enormous variations exist in furnace design details and operation, depending on the end product and local conditions, as well as ongoing research to improve furnace efficiency - the largest scrap-only furnace (in terms of tapping weight and transformer rating) is in Turkey, with a tap weight of 300 metric tonnes and a transformer of 300 MVA.
To produce a ton of steel in an electric arc furnace requires approximately 400 kilowatt-hours per short ton of electricity, or about 440kWh per metric tonne; the theoretical minimum amount of energy required to melt a tonne of scrap steel is 300kWh (melting point 1520°C/2768°F). Therefore, the 300-tonne, 300 MVA EAF mentioned above will require approximately 132 MWh of energy to melt the steel, and a 'power-on time' (the time that steel is being melted with an arc) of approximately 37 minutes, allowing for the power factor. Electric arc steelmaking is only economical where there is plentiful electricity, with a well-developed electrical grid.
A typical steelmaking arc furnace is the source of steel for a mini-mill, which may make bars or strip product. Mini-mills can be sited relatively near to the markets for steel products, and the transport requirements are less than for an integrated mill, which would commonly be sited near a harbour for access to shipping.
Because of the very dynamic quality of the arc furnace load, power systems may require technical measures to maintain the quality of power for other customers; flicker and harmonic distortion are common side-effects of arc furnace operation on a power system.
In a steel plant, a ladle furnace can be used to maintain the temperature of liquid steel during processing after tapping from the scrap-melting furnace. This also allows the molten steel to be kept ready for use in the event of a delay later in the steelmaking process. The ladle furnace consists of only the refractory roof and electrode system of a scrap-melting furnace, but it has no need for a tilting mechanism or scrap charging.
Electric arc furnaces are also used for production of ferroalloys and other non-ferrous alloys, and for production of phosphorus. Furnaces for these services are physically different from steel-making furnaces and may operate on a continuous, rather than batch, basis. Continuous process furnaces may also use paste-type (Soderberg) electrodes to prevent interruptions due to electrode changes. Such furnaces are usually known as submerged arc furnaces, because the electrode tips are buried in the slag/charge, and arcing occurs through the slag, between the matte and the electrode. A steelmaking arc furnace, by comparison, arcs in the open. The key is the electrical resistance, which is what generates the heat required: the resistance in a steelmaking furnace is the atmosphere, while in a submerged arc furnace, the slag or charge forms the resistance. The liquid metal formed in either furnace is too conductive to form an effective heat-generating resistance.
Amateurs have constructed a variety of arc furnaces, often based on electric arc welding kits contained by silical blocks or flower pots. Though crude, these simple furnaces are capable of melting a wide range of materials and creating calcium carbide etc.
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