Iron Extraction

The Blast Furnace 



Iron ores

The most commonly used iron ores are haematite (US: hematite), Fe2O3, and magnetite, Fe3O4.



The heat source

The air blown into the bottom of the furnace is heated using the hot waste gases from the top. Heat energy is valuable, and it is important not to waste any.

The coke (essentially impure carbon) burns in the blast of hot air to form carbon dioxide - a strongly exothermic reaction. This reaction is the main source of heat in the furnace.


Reduction of the ore

At the high temperature at the bottom of the furnace, carbon dioxide reacts with carbon to produce carbon monoxide.

It is the carbon monoxide which is the main reducing agent in the furnace.

In the hotter parts of the furnace, the carbon itself also acts as a reducing agent. Notice that at these temperatures, the other product of the reaction is carbon monoxide, not carbon dioxide.

The temperature of the furnace is hot enough to melt the iron which trickles down to the bottom where it can be tapped off.


 The function of limestone

Iron ore isn't pure iron oxide - it also contains an assortment of rocky material. This wouldn't melt at the temperature of the furnace, and would eventually clog it up. The limestone is added to convert this into slag which melts and runs to the bottom.

The heat of the furnace decomposes the limestone to give calcium oxide.

This is an endothermic reaction, absorbing heat from the furnace. It is therefore important not to add too much limestone because it would otherwise cool the furnace.

Calcium oxide is a basic oxide and reacts with acidic oxides such as silicon dioxide present in the rock. Calcium oxide reacts with silicon dioxide to give calcium silicate.

The calcium silicate melts and runs down through the furnace to form a layer on top of the molten iron. It can be tapped off from time to time as slag.

Slag is used in road making and as "slag cement" - a final ground slag which can be used in cement, often mixed with Portland cement.



Cast Iron

The molten iron from the bottom of the furnace can be used as cast iron.

Cast iron is very runny when it is molten and doesn't shrink much when it solidifies. It is therefore ideal for making castings - hence its name. However, it is very impure, containing about 4% of carbon. This carbon makes it very hard, but also very brittle. If you hit it hard, it tends to shatter rather than bend or dent.

Cast iron is used for things like manhole covers, cast iron pipes, valves and pump bodies in the water industry, guttering and drainpipes, cylinder blocks in car engines, Aga-type cookers, and very expensive and very heavy cookware.

At the time of writing (2015), world production of iron castings was about 75 million tonnes per year.





Most of the molten iron from a Blast Furnace is used to make one of a number of types of steel. There isn't just one substance called steel - they are a family of alloys of iron with carbon or various metals.


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