An interesting question

One I don’t know the answer to:

Blast furnaces such as the one at Scunthorpe make steel from scratch and, once shut down, are more or less impossible to replace. Greener, less energy-intensive electric arc furnaces, of which the UK has four, can make steel by recycling scrap. At present, though, they do not achieve the quality levels that a blast furnace can, at least not without incurring great expense in removing impurities.

And the ability to make such high-grade steel domestically is crucial to a nation’s defence capability. Steel is used in aeroplanes, ships, guns, tanks – more or less everything the military uses. If Scunthorpe were to close, the UK would be left with one blast furnace, at Port Talbot in Wales, which does not make the same products.

They’re right about the difference between a blast and arc furnace. Sorta right about the quality – the big change in modern steel is how much closer an arc can now get to the quality of blast furnace steel.

But military steel? High quality? Not really sure about that at all. Anyone know?

41 comments on “An interesting question

  1. The navy’s big guns are made out of steel imported from France.
    That is, the billet is imported but the shaping and boring, machining the rifling etc, is done in the UK.
    I rather think raw steel production is not the indicator of military capabilities that it once was.

  2. If I was in MoD procurement, I’d be very careful about allowing the use of Chinese steel in military hardware when setting contracts.

  3. Its the same arguments people roll out to defend special privileges for their favored industries – oh we can’t possibly do without that *for national security*.

    However, you have to think – for a short duration conflict domestic production is irrelevant. Everything comes from existing stocks.

    For a long duration conflict – well, the main difficulty in setting up another blast furnace is planning permissions, not building the furnace. FFS, the UK and Germany *rebuilt factories* while under sustained bombing campaigns – to the point that ‘total war’ was pretty definitively proved to be an unviable way of conducting wars. You simply couldn’t destroy infrastructure fast enough to genuinely cripple an economy. Hell, even the *communists* were building tanks in factories only a few miles behind the front lines.

    In addition, steel is fungible. So if you make a contract with the Chinese and they, getting squirly over Taiwan, decide to cut you off in the prelude to hostilities- you contract with someone else.

    Either the war happens fast – in which case you’re not building anything and fighting out of existing stocks – or it takes time to get going – in which case you’ve got plenty of time to find alternate sources.

  4. @Kevin Lohse
    From what I can see, if you were in MOD procurement you probably wouldn’t be able to spell “careful”.

  5. The reporter seems to be equating “high grade” with freedom from impurities, but that is a very different meaning to steel grades referring to alloying components. I doesn’t matter how clean your plain carbon steel is if you actually want 4130 alloy.

    The military argument is bunk anyway, if we need our own steel production in order to produce weapons under siege conditions then what about the aluminium, titanium, carbon fibre, integrated circuits etc. which are just as essential.

  6. Surprising that the Guardian prints a sympathetic article about a heavily polluting industry which contributes to defence.

    I’d still prop it up for reasons of security. The Guardian would prefer a solution like that idiot Corbyn suggested for the nuclear deterrent – keeping the subs but not the missiles, e.g. continuing to employ everyone but not make any steel.

  7. @ Clovis Sangrail. “Careful” could well be a theoretical concept in MoD procurement, yes.

  8. What is the issue with security of supply? Are those worrying about it concerned that someone is going to place submarines in the Atlantic and start sinking shipping? In the implausible event that we get into another shooting war with an adversary who has first world capabilities, it’s not going to be decided by who can build the most tanks or battleships.

  9. “Surprising that the Guardian prints a sympathetic article about a heavily polluting industry which contributes to defence”

    Yes, only a few weeks ago they were worshipping at the altar of St Greta and telling us how the UK had to reduce its emissions or face global catastrophe. You’d have thought the closure of a massive CO2 emitter would result in celebrations all round……………….more proof (if any more were needed) that the climate change shtick is just a convenient hook to hang political arguments on, not an actual reality.

  10. ” Everything comes from existing stocks”

    With everything these days now “just-in-time” to save the currently trivial cost of capital sitting around in stocks?

  11. Talk about generals fighting the last war, these guys are fighting 3, at least, wars ago. The idea that in the run up to a major conflict with eg Russia or China there will be a phoney war in which we have time to build up our stocks of tanks and ships for set piece land and naval battles is ludicrous.

  12. Steel is a tiny fraction of the stuff needed to make tanks, ships, planes etc. We do not make any 100% British component combat vehicles.

    Particular types of steel are used in particular items.

  13. Just out of interest, where is the Guardian writer thinking we get the component parts of the steel in the crucible from? All British? Or imported stuff?

  14. “You’d have thought the closure of a massive CO2 emitter would result in celebrations all round”

    I take it we’ll instead buy steel from a non-CO2 emitting source?

  15. Isn’t Trident our hedge that we won’t get into another situation where an enemy uses their submarines to try and blockade us, ergo, there won’t be any more long lasting ‘total’ wars where industrial capacity matters?

  16. “I take it we’ll instead buy steel from a non-CO2 emitting source?”

    If the eco-catastrophe were actually real we’d be told to stop using steel at all, other that whats already been made. Close down all the blast furnaces overnight. Thats the point. The eco-catastrophe is only ever used to control the actions of private individuals, not to make structural changes to how economies are organised on a global and national scale. Mrs Smith has to pay more to heat her house because ‘climate change’ but no-one stops big business doing exactly what it pleases, regardless of how much CO2 it emits. Its a way of controlling the masses, thats all.

    When a country is faced with an existential crisis all the normal rules go out the window, as in a war situation, and things change, rapidly. The fact that is not being done like that regarding climate change tells me that its not a real crisis, just a cover for a political point of view.

  17. “Blast furnaces such as the one at Scunthorpe … once shut down, are more or less impossible to replace”: how do they service them, then, e.g. rebricking?

    And how do you replace one? Quite quickly, apparently.
    https://www.eng.nipponsteel.com/english/whoweare/r_and_d/reports/pdf/vol08-03e.pdf

    Still, some of the discussion seems to use “blast furnace” to mean “blast furnace” and some seems to use it to mean “all the kit required to turn ore into steel” so naturally it’s hard to see whats really meant. If any of the verbiage is really meant, that is.

    We can all agree, can we not, that a blast furnace, sensu stricto, doesn’t actually produce steel.

  18. From an engineering view point, a steel stop and restart is expensive but achievable.

    From a rules and regulations point of view, unless we have a a major change in our attitudes to real engineering, and it’s effect on the environment, if they knock Scunthorpe down, they’d never be allowed to build another one – this is particularly true for the banks of coking ovens, which take the volatiles off coal to produce the coke required by the blast furnaces.

    Steel quality is a real problem – the EU decided to require a high scrap content in everything for environmental reasons, which means modern steel corrodes much faster than 1950s steel. I often replace steel sections at work where the original was good for 90 years, and the replacement has done 15, but there is no source at any price of higher quality virgin material (which is what we really should be using to achieve longevity in our applications).

  19. The writer of the article seems to be stuck quite firmly in the world of 1939.

  20. Does this explain the short lifespan of household radiators? We have lived in our house since 1993 and all of the original radiators are still intact. The two that we replaced have been replaced twice.

  21. “no source at any price of higher quality virgin material”: there used to be a useful source of steel that was free from the muck from nuclear bomb tests – the German fleet that had been scuttled in Scapa Flow. Has that all been used now?

  22. Having worked in purchasing for the manufacture of military kit, there’s little doubt the specs are always extensively defined. And a helluva performance getting varied. Whether that’s a necessity’s an entirely different matter. The specs tend to be derived from whatever was in the supplier supplied spec in the prototype build. Whether you actually need that particular material spec in that particular bit of gubbins is another matter. A screw may have a lengthy MOS (? or has that prefix changed?) part number. But it defines an ordinary GKN mild steel screw you can buy in any hardware store. It’s one reason why military gear costs so much. The screws to secure the lid of an equipment box may cost 20p. The paperwork raised to purchase them costs £500.
    Special steels for defence kit? Hard to see what they could be. Things like bearing races, other engine parts, most anything. They’re going to be the same as the specs required for non-military manufacture of kit does the same thing. For the reason they’re doing the same thing. A tank isn’t that different from any other powered vehicle. A fighter not much different from an airliner

    ¤

  23. “there used to be a useful source of steel that was free from the muck from nuclear bomb tests – the German fleet that had been scuttled in Scapa Flow. Has that all been used now?”

    The vast majority of the ships were raised and scrapped prior to WW2, so one suspects all that steel was used up then. There are some ships still on the sea bed, being too deep for economic recovery. Some small amounts of steel have been recovered from those wrecks for uses such as in Geiger counters, but as they are all now Scheduled Ancient Monuments, special licences would be needed to recover any more steel from them. But as there’s 3 battleships and 4 cruisers still in Scapa Flow there’s a decent amount of old metal there if it were even really needed.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scuttling_of_the_German_fleet_at_Scapa_Flow#Aftermath

  24. Agammamon

    “For a long duration conflict – well, the main difficulty in setting up another blast furnace is planning permissions, not building the furnace. FFS, the UK and Germany *rebuilt factories* while under sustained bombing campaigns – to the point that ‘total war’ was pretty definitively proved to be an unviable way of conducting wars. You simply couldn’t destroy infrastructure fast enough to genuinely cripple an economy. Hell, even the *communists* were building tanks in factories only a few miles behind the front lines.”

    This is a general problem with all military planning. It’s based on peacetime incentives. Everyone wants military officers who aren’t sexist, they want the army banned from using landmines, they don’t want the enemy tortured, they don’t want bodybags at all.

    Get into a total war and no-one gives a shit. Winning becomes far more important. Health and safety and good manners go out of the window.

  25. Bloke on M4, these days we would not be allowed to win. Bad for the environment, bad for transport. And Comrade Corbyn blocking parliamentary approval of anything.

  26. @theProle May 26, 2019 at 1:43 pm

    Rover used crap steel in 80s-90s – rust on car roofs

    .
    @Stonyground May 26, 2019 at 2:40 pm

    Probably. Flush system, then refill with de-ionised water and corrosion inhibitor.

    Talking of corrosion inhibitor: anyone know if automotive green, red or Prestone universal is suitable for CH systems?

  27. @bis

    afaik the “military grade” steel referred to are the types used for armour and sub hulls.

    iirc there was an outrage episode when Swedish steel was purchased for QE Class? Type 45?

  28. @ BoM4
    Health and Safety and Good Manners go out the window – but they only stay there if you get killed. if you survive then you get prosecuted multiple times while the IRA get away with it.

  29. “Bloke on M4, these days we would not be allowed to win. Bad for the environment, bad for transport. And Comrade Corbyn blocking parliamentary approval of anything.”

    All that stuff is luxury. Shifting up Maslow’s pyramid. People move from back-breaking paddy fields to polluted cities as it’s better than dying. Once they’ve got full bellies, they improve their pollution. If you put people’s security at risk, they go right back down.

  30. “Steel is used in aeroplanes, ships, guns, tanks”

    And the first two one is complete sh*te: Aeroplanes are definitely not made of steel – almost exclusively high grade and sophisticated aluminium alloys…

  31. I’m not sure that much of a modern warship is made from steel, either – not the superstructure, anyway.

  32. Chris,

    Modern warships are steel.

    Aluminium was used for superstructures on some classes (UK Type 21, for instance) for a while to reduce topweight, but problems with corrosion and stress cracking meant it fell from favour and everything we’ve built since has been all-steel.

  33. It was those bastards with their iron and steel ships that drove my ancestors out of the shipbuilding industry. So let the bloody blast furnaces close, say I. Serves ’em right.

    Mind you, coracle builders might have felt the same way about my family.

  34. I am amused.

    A blast furnace is the first stage in steel production. From the iron ore, coking coal, lime and dolomite, silica and various other flux charge you tap iron and slag.

    The iron is then transferred to another process where the excess carbon is removed. The three classical processes to make steel from iron are; Open hearth, bessemer pear, and oxylance. Electric furnaces is relatively new, keep in mind I am old!

    The met control determines the quality of the end product.

    To improve the quality and characteristics of the final steel other minerals can be added o the molten Iron ie. Manganese, Chromium, Wolfram (Tungsten in English) .
    Molybdenum, Vanadium, and others.

    Bottom line: A Blast Furnace makes Iron.

  35. @Jollygreenman May 27, 2019 at 1:53 pm

    Good point.

    You pass exam with A; rest of us receive C or Fail

  36. MyBurningEars,

    Bulk aluminium doesn’t burn (widespread myth, usually tied to HMS Sheffield – all-steel, I know, I was on her in 1979 and have been on most of her sisters – or the USS Belknap).

    Structural aluminium softens and melts at lower temperatures than steel, but by the time the compartment temperature’s up past 500° Celsius anything in it is beyond saving. This leads to issues like aluminium ladders melting, and aluminium skin collapsing off its supports – leaving a melted skeleton that looks as if the aluminium burned away, rather than falling to the deck as a melty puddle. Again, though, once the compartment’s so hot that the ladder’s melting, there’s nobody alive in there worrying “oh noes, we am trapped”.

    The USS Belknap collided with a carrier in the late 1970s, tearing a fuel line and drenching her superstructure with JP-5, which ignited and caused a serious fire that badly damaged the aluminium superstructure. Again, the metal didn’t burn, but it sagged, partly collapsed, and left a blackened skeletal wreck with steel turbine uptakes and exhausts protruding – often used to “prove” that her “aluminum superstructure” had “burned to the waterline”.

    Official USN picture
    View from above

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