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Back in May, 2003, Minesite's Man in Oz had a delightful piece on the above topic. This was the time of Rio Tinto's commitment to build a A$400 million HIsmelt commercial plant, capable of producing 800,000 tpy of pig iron. Oz summarized some of the background - that Rio Tinto had spent 20 years and A$600 million on development of the technology, it had begun within the CRA camp, later merged to form the current Rio Tinto, they had "chewed through" the financial commitments of several German and Japanese steel partners, and had just signed up three new ones (Nucor, Mitsubishi, and Shougang). The overall objective of the HIsmelt work, as Oz states it, was for Rio Tinto to find "a way of 'monetizing' the high-phosphorus iron ore which litters the WA outback".


Well, now three years into the program, the best annual net production has been 15% of design (for 2007). While there has been little substantive information published, not a good sign in itself, improvements have been announced of late in hourly production, daily production, weekly production, with projections of nameplate capacity being reached by year end, 2008. One wonders, and prays, as Oz suggested Rio Tinto was doing five years ago as well, whether such slow progress has been worth the $A1000 million spent on the project.


Rather, perhaps RT is at the point Oz speculated five years ago as one of two possible outcomes: "Or it doesn't work, and a $A1 billion experiment is quickly forgotten, and blamed on the silly Australians from CRA".


May I suggest a better alternative? There is another group of "silly Australians", down in Wyalla in South Australia with what is very much the same technology. They are with Ausmelt. Ausmelt calls their process the "top submerged lance" furnace. In all of their 20 plus years of experience they have only had about A$ 50 million to spend on research. In that time frame, they have commercialized over 20 plants (in the non-ferrous industry), with 20+ more in construction or due for commisioning in the next couple of years.


At Wyalla, in the 2000-2002 timeframe, they operated a smallish iron making plant, called AusIron, of 15,000 tpy capacity. It too can deal with high-phosphorus iron ore. This plant has now been converted to process 55,000 tpy irony-zinc wastes (like EAF dust) and should be fully commisioned very soon.


It would appear that Ausmelt knows something that HIsmelt does not - how to make iron maybe? Ausmelt certainly learned quickly that a horizontal configuration for the furnace was not the way to go - six months into development vs. 5+ years. They also learned how a lance submerged in the reacting slag bath was a better way to go. HIsmelt appears to have their lance suspended above the bath and with tuyeres penetrating rather low close to the iron bath so that they seem prone to formation of iron "elephant trunks". And Ausmelt has accumulated perhaps close to 1,000,000 hours of collective operating experience.


Another strange connection - Rio Tinto actually installed the first Ausmelt unit, in 1992, in Zimbabwe, on Ni and Cu leach residues. So it is not as though the two companies are unknown to each other.


Who knows, maybe $A1000 million doesn't need to blow away across the phosphorus iron ore littered landscape of Western Australia after all. And who knows, perhaps bath smelting, via the TSL, will become the best, fastest and most economical way to make iron after all. Especially for low grade ores, fines and wastes.



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  • 3 months later...

The Fat Lady Sings


A presentation by HIsmelt at a steel conference this week has it that iron production year to date is 340,000 tons (end of October), and that monthly production is about 37,000 tons. At that rate, production for all of 2008 will be less than 420,000 tons, barely over 50% of design.


Given these uncertain times, the continued slow progress in meeting production goals, the wear and tear on aging equipment, and the merger/acquisition negotiations between RTZ (HIsmelt's owner) and BHP, I think I hear the Fat Lady warming up.


In fact, based on the operating concepts and past problems clarified during this presentation, it looks to me that the technology has so lost its way that maybe "they can't get there from here". My suggestion of Ausmelt and HIsmelt working together does not appear close to being considered either, and given Ausmelt's own problems and over-full plate of new and ongoing projects, would only be possible with considerable injections of cash and manpower.


So, maybe the fat lady won't even bother to sing.


Maybe she'll just shout




and be done with it.




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