Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Coal Into Coke
Name: Don
Status: other
Grade: 9-12
Location: N/A 
Country: N/A
Date: 5/9/2005


Question:
Why is it necessary to convert coal into coke for use in smelting steel?


Replies:
First a little background.

Iron ore that is mined contains iron oxide and some impurities. To obtain iron, it is necessary to get rid of the oxygen and impurities. The easiest way to do this is to heat the ore along with a carbonaceous material like charcoal, coal, or coke, in a blast furnace. The carbon serves as the fuel and burns when air is blown into the blast furnace, thus heating it to high temperatures. The carbon chemically "grabs" the oxygen away from the iron, and becomes the gas carbon dioxide which goes away. (Actually, it is carbon monoxide that does the reacting with the iron.) If limestone (calcium carbonate) is added, the calcium reacts with the silica impurities to form slag, which separates from the iron. Presto - lots of pig iron with a fairly high carbon content and still some sulfur.

You may ask why air is blown into a blast furnace when the idea is to remove the oxygen, not add more? Well, high temperatures are needed, and there is ample amount of coke present to react with the oxygen and the iron ore, so too much oxygen is not a problem.

In fact, when the iron comes out, it is loaded with carbon and still contains some sulfur. The next step is to remove some of the carbon and sulfur to make steel. So steel is made by blowing oxygen into molten iron. The oxygen reacts with the carbon to form carbon dioxide which escapes as a gas. The sulfur is removed by adding "fluxes" that react with the sulfur and other impurities to form a slag that floats on the top.

Yes, it seems strange to first add carbon, and then take away carbon, but attempts at making one-step steel have not worked well.

Up until about 1750, charcoal was used in iron production. Charcoal works well, but it comes from wood, and wood is too expensive to use making iron. It takes 100 kg of charcoal to make 1 kg of steel. The forests were being wiped out.

Coal was tried, but it did not work well because impurities in the coal are transferred to the metal. This is especially bad for sulfur. Sulfur in iron makes it very weak.

It was discovered that when the coal was converted into coke (by heating in the absence of air) that many of the impurities would come out of the coal, either as gases or liquids. Even some sulfur comes out. The coke is then acceptable for smelting iron ore into iron.

Bob Erck


Don,

Coke is the carbonaceous re\sidue of the destructive distillation of bituminous coal, petroleum, or coal tar pitch. In the iron making process, coke is used for the reduction of iron ore in blast furnaces. I hope that this helps.

Sincerely,
Bob Trach



Click here to return to the Engineering Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (help@newton.dep.anl.gov), or at Argonne's Educational Programs

NEWTON AND ASK A SCIENTIST
Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory