Most of the things that surround us in our everyday lives have been invented or created abroad, in foreign countries. For instance, the first mobile phone (the great-grandfather of the phone you carry in your pocket) was designed in 1973 by American company Motorola. And the same goes for every hi-tech appliance that you use: your computer, your printer, your photo camera, your microwave oven… However, the various kinds of industrial technology are where Russian scientists and engineers really succeeded. Electro-welding, for example, was invented by Vasily Petrov, thermal cracking was designed by Sergei Gavrilov and Vladimir Shukhov (yes, that very Shukhov), and synthetic rubber is the brainchild of Sergei Lebedev. There is no need for us to go on, since this list is too long. However, we shall trace the way these inventions appear and come into use on the example of one of the Russian-born technologies.
We will talk about a special method of manufacturing cast iron which has been registered under the Romelt trademark. Meet Doctor of Engineering Valeriy Valavin, director of the Romelt Innovative Science and Learning Centre.
– Dr. Valavin, could you tell us how your technology came into being?
The history of this technology that involves manufacturing cast iron from non-agglomerated iron ore raw materials goes as far back as the Soviet period. Professor Vanyukov from the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys (MISiS) where I have been working all this time created a technology of melting copper-nickel ores in a special device that has been called Vanyukov’s furnace ever since. Today two of such furnaces work in Norilsk, two in the Lake Balkhash area and two more in the Urals. When our institute was visited by the Party leaders, they asked our scientists this question: “Why doesn’t the ferrous metals industry have a similarly progressive process?” And so in 1978 a group of MISiS scientists led by Professor Vladimir Roments began working on designing such a process. They had the idea of creating an alternative to blast-furnace ironmaking and casting iron without the drawbacks of a blast furnace. However, this method still wasn’t devoid of serious drawbacks and isn’t devoid of them now. Among these are the required coke, expensive and deficient raw materials as well as the need in elaborate preparation of iron-bearing materials.
To bring this idea to life the Central Committee of the Communist Party decided to build a pilot production unit at the Novolipetsk Iron and Steel Works (NLMK). A state-funded project of a pilot furnace construction was designed, aided by Moscow Gipromez (general designer) according to the Terms of Reference of MISiS, and this furnace was supposed to be able to produce up to 40 thousand tons of cast iron per year. The design of the already reputable Vanyukov’s furnace was taken as the prototype for this new device based on the new method of manufacturing ferrous metals. At this stage in 1984 I joined the project. All of us had next to zero knowledge in that sphere by that point – we had nothing but the idea.
To carry out this project a new subdivision of MISiS was created – the Department of Iron Ore Raw Materials Procession (IORMP), subsequently turned into the IORMP lab, then into the Romelt Center. The IORMP Department had a combined project team and a mobile team comprised of the faculty members. We had the same lineup of researchers for many years: we built the furnace for a year and a half, and from 1985 till 1998 we mastered various aspects of this technology. Our experiments were successful; the technology became fully-developed and recognized by both practicing engineers and academics.
– And after this the technology was accepted into production?
As I said, initially it was planned to substitute the new devices for blast furnaces – it turned out to be a utopian idea. We found our own niche for this process while we were learning this technology. We understood that we must not try to compete with the blast furnace, because it can still serve us for a very long time.
It should be kept in mind that in the metal industry the production process in blast furnace shops, converter shops and rolling-mill shops involves the formation of a lot of waste, or the so-called slurry. They contain not only a great deal of iron and non-ferrous metals (primarily zinc) but also such elements that are harmful for the blast-furnace process as sodium and potassium – these impair the performance indicators of blast furnaces and increase the coke consumption rate. This is why such slurry made of furnace charge (mixture of input materials for metal manufacturing) is excluded. Our technology recycles all those things based on their melting peculiarities. Processing the waste that includes withdrawal of valuable metals from the waste and production of cast iron is one of our niches. The second niche is the main units of mini-steel mills. This involves processing low-grade ores into cast iron which can be used at mini-steel mills as furnace charge, i.e. they can be used instead of scrap metal. A blast furnace that produces three million tons of cast iron per year can feed a small town with the population of 200-300 thousand residents. But in the Urals, for instance, there are many small towns with 60-100 thousand people residing in each of them – it is them who our blast furnaces can be really useful for. And that is the area we work in right now: we promote and commercialize this technology, at the same time continuing to explore it – there are still enough blank spots in it.
– Why can’t you take large volumes at once?
We need to travel the path of evolution. The approach is basically as follows: let us first master the small productive capacities such as 100, 200, 300 and 500 thousand tons, and then decide whether we need to put larger volumes into production. Particularly as the blast furnaces are still working and bringing profits. Why would we invest money when we don’t have befitting goals? Having said that, in Lipetsk and at the Severstal company they yield 500-600 thousand tons of waste per year, which is the volume that 300 thousand tons of cast iron can be produced from. Now that is the right amount for us.
By the way, a blast furnace has traveled a similar path of evolution. It’s only nowadays that they have capacities of about five thousand cubic meters but initially they were much humbler – 50-100 cubic meters on average, hardly more than that.
Iron and steel works in Myanmar, built using Romelt – the innovative Russian technology designed by the scientists of MISiS National Research Technological University. The prime contractor for the project is Tyazhpromexport.
– After the engineering solution and the design solution had been worked out, were you able to launch the project somewhere?
As far back as during the Soviet period there was the Soviet Union Government Decree about the construction of two large facilities based on the Romelt technology: the first one in Lipetsk and the second one at the Kuznetsk Iron and Steel Plant, to process the slurry produced at these plants, withdraw zinc from them and recycle them.
That was in 1990. One year later the situation in the country drastically changed, and the plant acquired new owners. The Novolipetsk Plant immediately seized the Romelt technology, but they needed a three million tons unit. We tried our best to explain this to them: “You can’t build a three million unit right away; you need to do this step by step. Let us build one for 300 thousand. We are not going to compete with blast furnaces. Our goal in Lipetsk is to process slurry”. In the end the owners decided that they will primarily develop the higher added value products, and they invested all their money into service lease.
– How did you adjust your work to such a situation?
Previously the funds for the pilot experiments and the casting work were provided to us by the Ministry of Iron and Steel Industry and the Lipetsk Steel Plant, but in 1991 all the funding was cut off. Then we created a small enterprise called Metecotech and began manufacturing cast iron using the pilot unit and at the same time refining the technology. We sold that cast iron for the production of bathtubs, radiators and other similar products. The earned money was enough to provide for ourselves and for the lab, to fund some of our research and to repay the oxygen and gas expenses for the Lipetsk Steel Plant. In other words, we became a self-supporting facility.
At that time we completely mastered the work with slurry and iron ore, and foreign manufacturers became frequent visitors of our facility: Americans, Indians, the Japanese, the Chinese. We were a bit restricted in that respect during the Soviet era: we were not allowed to say or do certain things. But when we began selling the cast iron by ourselves we understood that we had to communicate with other people more. Several foreign companies bought the licenses to use the Romelt technology in the USA, in India, in Japan. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work out in either of these countries. We made the biggest progress in India. The Indians provided an area to build a Romelt technology slurry processing plant and they made a call for bids that was won by Tyazhpromexport – a Russian foreign trade organization. In cooperation with an Indian customer Tyazhpromexport began preparing a contract, but at a certain point they decided the money was not enough. However, the Indians refused to go back on the bidding. As a result, the project was shut down due to a disagreement over capital investment.
According to the terms of our first licenses we could only work with three countries: India, Japan and the USA, but now we have much more options. Such countries as Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Egypt, Moldova, North Korea and Myanmar have expressed interest in the Romelt process. As for North Korea, we have a feeling that they have already secretly built a Romelt facility.
– But when you open a facility that uses some new industrial technology, you will also need to train the relevant personnel…
In India it never actually came to training personnel. However, the Indians have a solid scientific school of steelmakers, which means they had something to base their training on. They had very good scientists and good research institutions, particularly in the field of nonferrous metals. They had excellent equipment. But the Romelt technology is somewhat unique and you need to learn it anyway. We were ready for that: we had developed the relevant learning programs and the required operational guidelines.
– After this underachievement in India, did you get any actual orders anywhere else?
Right when India began slipping away from us we began interacting with Myanmar. When the military men took over in Burma (Myanmar’s old name), the country had serious sanctions imposed on it. Supplies of iron from abroad were cut down, but there was still need for it (they required about 200-300 thousand tons of metal). So the Government of Myanmar decided to develop their own Metal Industry. They had their own ore deposits, but they did not have coke. And they contacted Danieli, an Italian company, with the question of how to develop metallurgy under such circumstances. And Danieli had contacted us at some point previously; they had visited Lipetsk and studied our technology. So they recommended Romelt as a promising technology for Myanmar. And that is how things got rolling.
– Was the prime contractor Tyazhpromexport again?
The prime contractor was indeed Tyazhpromexport, and the general designer was the Leningrad Gipromez. MISiS was the production managing body. As production managers we wrote all the startup guidelines, emergency guidelines, we developed the Terms of Reference, and we controlled all the design solutions by working closely with the prime contractor and the project organizations.
We cooperate with Tyazhpromexport to promote the Romelt technology for markets of other countries as well, we do pre-drafting works and promotion work. The support of this organization is very important to us.
– Contrary to India, Myanmar is an agricultural country, and there is next to no tech knowledgeable personnel there. Does that mean you have nobody to rely on there?
You are absolutely right. The technology and engineering competence is at the zero point, and it is becoming a big problem now. We visited Myanmar three times to deliver lectures there. We selected 80 people out of 200, then we reduced that number to 60 people. A group of 25 Myanmar citizens visited MISiS twice to continue their studies and take tests.
In Myanmar there is a severe lack of tech professionals, which is why the Romelt Center has to train the necessary personnel by themselves. The first stages of the training are held in Myanmar, and some of the employees take their training course in Moscow.
However, in order for the plant to function properly, we need about 800 tech professionals. Besides the Romelt shop, we need to create and commission the infrastructure facilities – an oxygen charging station, a heating station, an ore preparation shop, a coal shop, a gas distribution substation and so on. All in all 36 facilities that need to function simultaneously. Of course, that requires operating staff which they don’t have in Myanmar at this point.
Right now Tyazhpromexport is having talks about organizing the training of 400 employees, and this is how they want to do it. In Myanmar there is a college where they can train middle-ranking employees: welders, machine men, maintenance technicians, electricians that attend to control and measurement devices. As for the top echelon, which includes around 80-90 people, they need to be either brought to MISiS for half a year, or we should open a MISiS base in Myanmar and teach them there. When we worked in Egypt we did the same thing.
The stumbling point was money again. The Myanmars understand that their personnel need to be trained but they do not want to pay for that. And we are not willing to teach them for free.
Tyazhpromexport and MISiS have also proposed a different option: sending about 150-200 Russian professionals to Myanmar so that they could occupy the key positions during the startup phase. That said, few Russian people understand this technology either, but at least we can teach them in their native Russian language.
In any case, I expect difficulties to occur in Myanmar with commissioning certain equipment and with working with the local personnel.
In November of 2015 there was the first, and in March of 2016 there was the second stage of the ironworks launch in Myanmar.
– Around 30 years have passed since you began working on this technology. Has anything changed in the metal industry since that time?
If we take something related to our field, then the problem of slurry and processing low-grade ores is only increasing globally. The Indians have entire fields of slurry and many deposits of iron ore. Kazakhstan has the same problems. In terms of technology any type of iron-bearing slurry can be processed, but that is not always justified economically. This solves the environmental problem but it sometimes leads to not getting any profit. However, it must be understood that we need to pay for recycling certain types of waste just like we pay for the recycling of rubbish. At the same time processing of many types of iron and steel works slurry using the Romelt process is justified both economically and environmentally.
Of course, certain new slurry recycling technologies do emerge and then they get offered to the customers. Almost all of them have been tested in the laboratory conditions. But when we consider these technologies for commercial introduction I always say this: “Hey guys, show us how many tons of metal you have produced using your technology”. Because a lab furnace can only melt 50-100 grams – the amount that is only enough for research. And for actual industrial production you need to have a furnace like the one in the Lipetsk plant, you have to go through all that we went through. But there are no devices that would yield at least 100 kg of metal per hour. That means we still cannot consider commercial introduction of any alternatives to the Romelt technology at this moment.
– What other growth points do you see for your technology, besides Myanmar?
Our Beloretsk project looks very promising – the Belstal team is going to carry it out in the city of Beloretsk that has 250 years of metal industry history. Firstly, this is a Russian project. Secondly, the project is supported by the municipal government of Bashkiria, it is planned to allot federal funds for it, and that city is included in the list of Russian single-industry cities. Thirdly, the Belstal team is very creative and we have found mutual understanding with them. Contrary to Myanmar, they have actual opponents of this idea and there is an actual discussion about the whole thing, and that will help us to build the facility faster and better. This project’s main enthusiast, Ramil Bignov, is a well-known Bashkirian entrepreneur and he is investing his own funds into this. If this projects starts off and goes on well enough, I think it can become a reference point for further promotion of Romelt both in our country and abroad.
In conclusion I would like to wish Professor Vladimir Roments, the all-time leader of the project and the founder of this technology, a happy upcoming birthday. We hope that he stays in good health and that his dream – the startup of the Romelt plant – finally comes true. This August Professor Roments turns 90!