About steel

Steel is the world's most important engineering and construction material. It is used in every aspect of our lives; in cars and construction products, refrigerators and washing machines, cargo ships and surgical scalpels. It can be recycled over and over again without loss of property.

Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon containing less than 2% carbon and 1% manganese and small amounts of silicon, phosphorus, sulphur and oxygen. Steel is the world's most important engineering and construction material. It is used in every aspect of our lives; in cars and construction products, refrigerators and washing machines, cargo ships and surgical scalpels.

Globally, steel is produced via two main routes: the blast furnace-basic oxygen furnace (BF-BOF) route and electric arc furnace (EAF) route. Variations and combinations of production routes also exist.

 

The key difference between the routes is the type of raw materials they consume. For the BF-BOF route these are predominantly iron ore, coal, and recycled steel, while the EAF route produces steel using mainly recycled steel and electricity. Depending on the plant configuration and availability of recycled steel, other sources of metallic iron such as direct-reduced iron (DRI) or hot metal can also be used in the EAF route. 

 

About 70% of steel is produced using the BF-BOF route. First, iron ores are reduced to iron, also called hot metal or pig iron. Then the iron is converted to steel in the BOF. After casting and rolling, the steel is delivered as coil, plate, sections or bars.

 

Steel made in an EAF uses electricity to melt recycled steel. Additives, such as alloys, are used to adjust to the desired chemical composition. Electrical energy can be supplemented with oxygen injected into the EAF. Downstream process stages, such as casting, reheating and rolling, are similar to those found in the BF-BOF route. About 29% of steel is produced via the EAF route.

 

Another steelmaking technology, the open hearth furnace (OHF), makes up about 1% of global steel production. The OHF process is very energy intensive and is in decline owing to its environmental and economic disadvantages. 

 

Most steel products remain in use for decades before they can be recycled. Therefore, there is not enough recycled steel to meet growing demand using the EAF steelmaking method alone. Demand is met through a combined use of the BF-BOF and EAF production methods.

 

All of these production methods can use recycled steel scrap as an input. Most new steel contains recycled steel.

 

For an overview of how steel is made, download our steelmaking poster in PDF format.

Steel is not a single product. There are more than 3,500 different grades of steel with many different physical, chemical, and environmental properties.

Approximately 75% of modern steels have been developed in the past 20 years. If the Eiffel Tower were to be rebuilt today, the engineers would only need one-third of the steel that was originally used.

Modern cars are built with new steels that are stronger but up to 35% lighter than in the past.

World crude steel production reached 1,621 million tonnes (Mt) in 2015. In 2014, 1,670 million tonnes (Mt) of steel were produced. 

Steel is very friendly to the environment. It is completely recyclable, possesses great durability, and, compared to other materials, requires relatively low amounts of energy to produce. Innovative lightweight steel construction (such as in automobile and rail vehicle construction) help to save energy and resources. The steel industry has made immense efforts to limit environmental pollution in the last decades. Producing one tonne of steel today requires just 40% of the energy it did in 1960. Dust emissions have been reduced by even more.

Yes, very easily. Steel's unique magnetic properties make it an easy material to recover from the waste stream to be recycled. The properties of steel remain unchanged no matter how many times the steel is recycled.

The electric arc furnace (EAF) method of steel production can use exclusively recycled steel.

Steel is the world's most recycled material.

worldsteel updates the list of top steel producers in the annual World Steel in Figures publication. For the latest table, visit the Online Bookshop.

worldsteel updates the list of major steel-producing countries in the annual World Steel in Figures publication. The latest edition is available in the Online Bookshop.

It is not known who produced the first steel. Since 200 BC, many cultures have produced steel in one form or another. A British inventor, Henry Bessemer, is generally credited with the invention of the first technique to mass produce steel in the mid 1850s. Steel is still produced using technology based on the Bessemer Process of blowing air through molten pig iron to oxidise the material and separate impurities.

Many elements and materials go through chemical reactions with other elements. When steel comes into contact with water and oxygen there is a chemical reaction and the steel begins to revert to its original form - iron oxide.

In most modern steel applications this problem is easily overcome by coating. Many different coating materials can be applied to steel. Paint is used to coat cars and enamel is used on refrigerators and other domestic appliances. In other cases, elements such as nickel and chromium are added to make stainless steel, which can help prevent rust.