This is the fourth part of our EAF-series. It is about the differences and communalities of EAF, Indiction Furnaces, Ladle furnaces, Plasma Furnaces & Vacuum Arc Furnaces.
EAF vs other electrical furnaces
Arc furnaces differ from induction furnaces in that the charge material is directly exposed to an electric arc and the current in the furnace terminals passes through the charged material.
For steelmaking, direct current (DC) arc furnaces are used, with a single electrode in the roof and the current return through a conductive bottom lining or conductive pins in the base.
The advantage of DC is lower electrode consumption per ton of steel produced, since only one electrode is used, as well as less electrical harmonics and other similar problems.
The size of DC arc furnaces is limited by the current carrying capacity of available electrodes, and the maximum allowable voltage. Maintenance of the conductive furnace hearth is a bottleneck in extended operation of a DC arc furnace.
In a steel plant, a ladle furnace (LF) is used to maintain the temperature of liquid steel during processing after tapping from EAF or to change the alloy composition. The ladle is used for the first purpose when there is a delay later in the steelmaking process.
The ladle furnace consists of a refractory roof, a heating system, and, when applicable, a provision for injecting argon gas into the bottom of the melt for stirring. Unlike a scrap melting furnace, a ladle furnace does not have a tilting or scrap charging mechanism.
Electric arc furnaces are also used for production of calcium carbide, ferroalloys and other non-ferrous alloys, and for production of phosphorus. Furnaces for these services are physically different from steel-making furnaces and may operate on a continuous, rather than batch, basis.
Continuous process furnaces may also use paste-type, Søderberg electrodes to prevent interruptions due to electrode changes. Such a furnace is known as a submerged arc furnace because the electrode tips are buried in the slag/charge, and arcing occurs through the slag, between the matte and the electrode. A steelmaking arc furnace, by comparison, arcs in the open.
The key is the electrical resistance, which is what generates the heat required: the resistance in a steelmaking furnace is the atmosphere, while in a submerged-arc furnace the slag or charge forms the resistance. The liquid metal formed in either furnace is too conductive to form an effective heat-generating resistance.
Amateurs have constructed a variety of arc furnaces, often based on electric arc welding kits contained by silical blocks or flower pots. Though crude, these simple furnaces can melt a wide range of materials, create calcium carbide, etc.
A plasma arc furnace (PAF) uses plasma torches instead of graphite electrodes. Each of these torches consists of a casing provided with a nozzle and an axial tubing for feeding a plasma-forming gas (either nitrogen or argon), and a burnable cylindrical graphite electrode located within the tubing. Such furnaces can be referred to as “PAM” (Plasma Arc Melt) furnaces. They are used extensively in the titanium melt industry and similar specialty metals industries.
Vacuum arc remelting (VAR) is a secondary remelting process for vacuum refining and manufacturing of ingots with improved chemical and mechanical homogeneity.
In critical military and commercial aerospace applications, material engineers commonly specify VIM-VAR steels. VIM means Vacuum Induction Melted and VAR means Vacuum Arc Remelted. VIM-VAR steels become bearings for jet engines, rotor shafts for military helicopters, flap actuators for fighter jets, gears in jet or helicopter transmissions, mounts or fasteners for jet engines, jet tail hooks and other demanding applications.
Most grades of steel are melted once and are then cast or teemed into a solid form prior to extensive forging or rolling to a metallurgically sound form. In contrast, VIM-VAR steels go through two more highly purifying melts under vacuum. After melting in an electric arc furnace and alloying in an argon oxygen decarburization vessel, steels destined for vacuum remelting are cast into ingot molds.
The solidified ingots then head for a vacuum induction melting furnace. This vacuum remelting process rids the steel of inclusions and unwanted gases while optimizing the chemical composition. The VIM operation returns these solid ingots to the molten state in the contaminant-free void of a vacuum.
This tightly controlled melt often requires up to 24 hours. Still enveloped by the vacuum, the hot metal flows from the VIM furnace crucible into giant electrode molds. A typical electrode stands about 15 feet (5 m) tall and will be in various diameters. The electrodes solidify under vacuum.
For VIM-VAR steels, the surface of the cooled electrodes must be ground to remove surface irregularities and impurities before the next vacuum remelt. Then the ground electrode is placed in a VAR furnace. In a VAR furnace the steel gradually melts drop-by-drop in the vacuum-sealed chamber.
Vacuum arc remelting further removes lingering inclusions to provide superior steel cleanliness and further remove gases such as oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen. Controlling the rate at which these droplets form and solidify ensures a consistency of chemistry and microstructure throughout the entire VIM-VAR ingot.
This in turn makes the steel more resistant to fracture or fatigue. This refinement process is essential to meet the performance characteristics of parts like a helicopter rotor shaft, a flap actuator on a military jet or a bearing in a jet engine.
For some commercial or military applications, steel alloys may go through only one vacuum remelt, namely the VAR. For example, steels for solid rocket cases, landing gears or torsion bars for fighting vehicles typically involve the one vacuum remelt.
Vacuum arc remelting is also used in production of titanium and other metals which are reactive or in which high purity is required.
Degner, M. et ali, Steel Institute VDeh (2008), Steel Manual, Düsseldorf Verlag Stahleisen GmbH.