iron: Production and Refining
Iron is produced in the United States chiefly from oxide ores. For many years rich hematite ores were produced by open-pit mining in the Mesabi Range near Lake Superior. However, these ores have been largely depleted, and iron is now produced from low-grade ores that are treated to improve their quality; this process is called beneficiation. Iron ores are refined in the blast furnace. The product of the blast furnace is called pig iron and contains about 4% carbon and small amounts of manganese, silicon, phosphorus, and sulfur. About 95% of this iron is processed further to make steel, often by the open-hearth process or the Bessemer process, but more recently in the United States and other countries by the basic oxygen process or by an electric arc furnace. The balance is cast in sand molds into blocks called pigs. It is further processed in iron foundries (see casting).
Cast iron is made when pig iron is remelted in small cupola furnaces (similar to the blast furnace in design and operation) and poured into molds to make castings. It usually contains 2% to 6% carbon. Scrap iron or steel is often added to vary the composition. Cast iron is used extensively to make machine parts, engine cylinder blocks, stoves, pipes, steam radiators, and many other products. Gray cast iron, or gray iron, is produced when the iron in the mold is cooled slowly. Part of the carbon separates out in plates in the form of graphite but remains physically mixed in the iron. Gray iron is brittle but soft and easily machined. White cast iron, or white iron, which is harder and more brittle, is made by cooling the molten iron rapidly. The carbon remains distributed throughout the iron as cementite (iron carbide, Fe3C). A malleable cast iron can be made by annealing white iron castings in a special furnace. Some of the carbon separates from the cementite; it is much more finely divided than in gray iron. A ductile iron may be prepared by adding magnesium to the molten pig iron; when the iron is cast the carbon forms tiny spherical nodules around the magnesium. Ductile iron is strong, shock resistant, and easily machined.
Wrought iron is commercially purified iron. In the Aston process, pig iron is refined in a Bessemer converter and then poured into molten iron silicate slag. The resulting semisolid mass is passed between rollers that squeeze out most of the slag. The wrought iron has a fibrous structure with threads of slag running through it; it is tough, malleable, ductile, corrosion resistant, and melts only at high temperatures. It is used to make rivets, bolts, pipes, chains, and anchors, and is also used for ornamental ironwork.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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