the dominance of steel -- 11/11/14

Today's selection -- from Making the Modern World by Vaclav Smil. Iron, used overwhelmingly as steel, is the world's dominant metal, produced at levels twenty times larger than aluminum, copper, zinc, lead and tin combined. In 1945, the United States produced 80% of the world's steel and the U.S. Steel Corporation was the dominant steelmaker in the world. Today, the USA makes less than 6% of world steel and China is the dominant producer with 45% of the total (some estimate 60%). And the U.S. Steel Corporation was demoted decades ago from the Dow 30 in favor of Disney:

"In 1914 nearly 75% of US steel output came out of open hearths and nearly half a century later their share of steel production peaked at 88%. By that time, Japan and Europe were rapidly converting to top-blown basic oxygen furnaces (BOFs), Bessemer-like converters charged with molten pig iron and scrap that is subjected to blasts of supersonic oxygen. ...

"This new way of steelmaking ... was almost instantly adopted in Japan, as the country was rebuilding its steel industry that had been destroyed in World War II. In contrast, major US steel makers were reluctant innovators, adopting their first BOF only in 1964. ... By the century's end, BOFs produced slightly more than 70% of the world's steel, though this rate will not increase (it was just below 70% in 2011) as they face competition from electric arc furnaces (EAFs) using scrap metal.

BOF in operation, Tangshan China electric arc furnace

"Global output of steel rose 30-fold between 1900 and 2000 ... Global steelmaking has also seen major shifts in national dominance and in the structure of the industry. As steelmaking expanded and matured, both the primacy in production and the technical leadership shifted from the UK to the USA; but from the 1950s the center of innovation moved to Europe and above all to Japan, while the USSR became the world's largest, but technically inferior, steel producer. After 1974 (coincident with the first round of large oil price rises) the industry's almost uninterrupted post-World War II rise turned into a sequence of advances and retreats, with global production dipping in 10 of the next 25 years. The next dip came in 2008 and 2009 as a result of the global recession, but the output remained above 1 Gt/year (first surpassed in 2004) because of China's huge, and rising, demand.

"In 1900, the US Steel Corporation produced nearly 30% of the world's steel and US output was 36% of the global total. At the end of World War II (with Japan and Germany in ruins) the US share was nearly 80% of the global output, but the post -- 1955 expansion of the Japanese and Soviet steelmaking began to reduce the industry's global share. By 1975, the USA still had three companies among the world's top 10 producers (US Steel as number 2), by 1990 US Steel was alone in the top group (number 5), and a year later USX, its parent company, was dumped from the Dow 30 to make a place for Disney.

"By the year 2000 there was no American company among the top 10: US Steel was placed 14th, and in 2011 when it was 13th, 6 out of the 10 largest steel makers were in China, the USA made less than 6% of world steel and China produced 45% of the total."


Vaclav Smil


Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization




2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd


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