23 August 2023

Breathing new life into steelworks' No 6 blast furnace will cost a cool billion dollars

| Jen White
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No 6 blast furnace at Port Kembla Steelworks

The $1.15 billion reline and upgrade of No 6 blast furnace will take about three years and create up to 300 jobs for Illawarra tradies. Photo: BlueScope.

The $1 billion rebuild of No 6 blast furnace at Port Kembla Steelworks will provide the company with a bridge until new technology is developed that will allow commercially viable low emission steelmaking.

BlueScope this week (21 August) announced its board had approved the $1.15 billion reline and upgrade of the furnace, which the company says will secure steelmaking manufacturing capacity for Australia.

Believed to be Australia’s largest ever steel infrastructure project, the reline will also create up to 300 new jobs in the Illawarra during construction.

The steelworks once operated a number of blast furnaces, but only No 5 furnace has been operating since No 6 was shut down in 2011. The furnace – shaped like a giant bottle made of steel – is where the raw materials, such as iron ore and coke, are converted into liquid iron at temperatures of more than 1500 degrees Celsius. The molten liquid is used in the steelmaking process. (See video below that explains the blast furnace process).

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With No 5 blast furnace nearing the end of its useful life, the company said it needed to act now to ensure it could continue its steelmaking operations. The reline and upgrade will allow No 6 to operate for a further 20 years.

The project has been on hold for a number of years while the company investigated other options to produce “green steel”.

However, CEO Mark Vassella said there was no other technology on the market that could maintain the plant’s output after 2026, when No 5 blast furnace reaches the end of its life.

“We see no alternative between now and late 2026 when we need No 6 ready to blow in and start producing iron for us, that is clear from our perspective,” he said.

“We are actively exploring options for the longer-term, large-scale decarbonisation of our operations, in order to realise our vision of low emissions iron and steelmaking in Australia.

Project director Justin Reid in hi-vis gear at the blast furnace.

BlueScope’s reline project director Justin Reed said the massive upgrade would involve opening up the furnace and replacing its internal lining. Photo: Jen White.

“Implementing the reline and upgrade project allows us the necessary time to develop, test and pilot alternative viable lower emissions iron making pathways.

“The reline does not lock us into a full 20-year blast furnace campaign … it secures our immediate future while enabling a transition to lower emissions steelmaking as soon as it is commercially feasible.

“The reline project is our bridge to the future and critical to maintaining the sovereign capability of flat steelmaking in Australia.”

During a visit to the idle No 6 blast furnace this week, BlueScope’s reline project director Justin Reed said the extensive reline and upgrade work would involve opening up the furnace and replacing its internal lining.

“When we turned No 6 blast furnace off in 2011 it wasn’t at the end of its life, but was certainly well into its campaign,” he said.

“The internal lining of the furnace is worn; we’ll change out the hearth and the staves [water cooling system] and we’ll also repair the existing systems that surround it.”

Justin said other upgrades would include environmental improvements such as a new slag granulation plant, addition of a waste gas heat recovery system and installation of a top gas recovery turbine with greater capability than No 5 furnace.

“We’re using the same process to generate the same amount of iron but we’ll actually generate more power by investing in this plant,” he said.

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BlueScope has been working with local contractors to maximise the use of Illawarra workers wherever possible.

“We’re going to need about 300 local tradespeople to come in and do the actual reline for us, including mechanical, boiler making and electrical trades,” Justin said.

“We’ve been working with our contractors, who’ve been through some pretty tough times with us, so we really want to engage and work with them to help deliver this project as part of our normal operations here at Port Kembla Steelworks.”

Meanwhile, general manager of manufacturing David Scott said BlueScope’s master plan for the future of about 200 ha of excess landholdings adjacent to the steelworks would be released later this year.

“I’ve seen some of the early concept plans and it just looks absolutely fantastic, it’s quite mind-blowing,” he said.

“The idea is about how we can bring together advanced manufacturing, renewable energy technologies, skills-based learning and education into a facility that can work in a collaborative way.

“The other part of it is a significant community space and some of the concepts I’ve seen are fantastic.

“It’s about bringing people back into that area and utilising the community spaces, as well as creating jobs that align with the steel industry.”

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