The development of strip casting technology in the iron & steel industry

05May09

Strip casting technology is a new technology that significantly improves the casting and rolling of steel slab into final products. It has application in primary steel production, where it can deliver significant cost advantages over the existing casting technology.

Strip casting technology has a number of advantages over conventional casting technologies. First, the capital expenditure for producing hot rolled coils is considerably lower than for conventional casting and rolling facilities. Second, the energy required to create the final product is significantly reduced and energy costs decrease accordingly. Third, strip casting also allows small steel mills to produce their final products directly without the need to outsource this final stage to competing facilities, and thus has a strategic advantage over conventional casting technologies that often needed to be outsourced to larger facilities.

While strip casting technology will reduce the amount of energy needed per ton steel and is often characterized as ‘energy-efficient’ technology, its development was only loosely motivated by energy-efficiency considerations. For the majority of steel makers involved in strip casting technology, the principle rationale was always the advantages that strip casting technologies offered in terms of reduced capital costs. The gain in energy efficiency was no more than a positive side effect.

Technology development in strip casting was led by industry and the public sector played only a minor role in promoting and supporting strip casting technology. During the 1980s and 1990s, leading international steel makers took the lead in forming technology networks that led to the development of strip casting technology and its application on an industrial scale. Strip casting technology is now at the threshold of becoming a commercialised technology.

Private Enterprise Research and Development – From around 1975 steel-makers started looking for innovative casting technologies that could extend the advantages of continuous casting. The natural progression was to focus on casting liquid steel in to ‘thinner’ strips and in 1989, the German machine supplier SMS succeeded in introducing thin slab casting technology. R&D efforts continued as steel makers sought technologies that would realise even thinner casting. Between 1975 and 1985 a number of technology networks were formed to address strip casting technology and R&D efforts were announced in almost all the major steel-making countries. By 1990, 11 micro-networks comprising consortia of steel making companies were active in strip casting technology and as research began to converge on a preferred technological approach, the early stage R&D gave way to demonstration projects that were intended to scale up the technology, what the industry referred to as the “hot model” stage. Since then a number of the micro-networks have gone on to demonstrate their technologies at an industrial scale and claim that they are now ready for commercialization. The status of the individual micro-networks and the funding are shown in the tables below.

The status of strip casting technology micro-networks

strip-casting-table

From the above, it is clear that the development of strip casting technology is a highly international effort. Actors from the US, Canada, Europe, South Korea and Australia were involved and formed themselves into micro-networks which played a crucial role in the development of the technology. In general, each micro-network consisted of a steel-maker and an engineering firm or machine supplier, with the steel-making firms taking the lead as considerable steel-making expertise was required to apply the technology at scale. All the steel-makers that led these micro-networks were large integrated steel firms. The direct contribution of actors such as universities and public research institutes was limited. This underscores the strategic importance of strip casting technology to the steel firms involved in its development. The interaction between the micro-networks was also important. Each micro-network monitored each other’s R&D activities and benchmarked themselves to competing micro-networks in order to create or strengthen firm internal support for continuing R&D. There were several international conferences on thin slab casting and strip casting and during these conferences information was passed between competing micro-networks, without technical details being disclosed.

Three micro-networks spearhead the development: the merged EUROSTRIP micro-network, the Japanese micro-network of Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi, and the effort of the Australian steel-maker BHP and the Japanese machine builder IHI. These three leading micro-networks needed 15–17 years to operate an industrial scale caster. There is some variation in the length of the different phases – hot model, pilot scale caster and industrial scale caster – though each phase took approximately 3–7 years. The up-scaling of strip casting technology was taken with regular and persistent steps. The technology materialised steadily, on the basis of the momentum established by the technology network and micro-networks.

Governments played only a minor role in supporting the development of strip casting technologies. Various governments provided modest funding for strip casting R&D and in some instances they provided grants to support pilot or demonstration scale plants. Though this support was often poorly managed and misdirected and several of the projects that received support were ended before any significant advances were made. Interestingly, of the three micro-networks that achieved the greatest advances, none received anything but marginal external R&D support (i.e. Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi, the Australian BHP micro-network and the European Usinor/Thyssen micro-network). It was the strong economic case for the technology and the momentum created by the micro-networks that underpinned the development of strip casting technology, rather than public financial support.

Summary

  • The advantages of strip casting technology was well know to the steel industry as far back as the nineteenth century, but it took more than 140 years for the technology to finally emerge.
  • The private sector, namely the large integrated steel makers, took the lead in developing and financing strip casting technology. The principle rationale for this investment was financial, as strip casting technology offered significant reductions in capital costs. The energy efficiency gains were no more than a positive side effect.
  • The development of strip casting technology was an international effort driven forward by a number of consortia or micro-networks that generally comprised an integrated steel maker, equipment supplier and engineering firm.
  • These micro-networks were crucial to driving forward R&D and scaling up the technology to industrial scale. The micro-networks shared information amongst one another, but at the same time competed with one another and benchmarked their performance against one another. This imparted a very significant momentum to their technology development efforts.
  • It took the industry 15 to 17 years to develop strip casting technology to commercial scale. This required a total investment from the private sector estimated at between US$500 and US$700 million or US$30 to US$50 million per year over the period in question. This is equivalent to about 1 to 2% of total R&D expenditure by the industry, which is in turn about 1% of sales.
  • The public sector role in supporting the technology was minor. In the case of the three most successful micro-networks, none received more than marginal public support.

[1] Luiten, E. E. M. And Blok, K. (2003) ‘Stimulating R&D of industrial energy-efficient technology; the effect of government intervention on the development of strip casting technology’, Energy Policy, 31: 1339–1356

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