The core of a blast furnace can reach up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, making it an uninviting place. To put that in perspective, molten lava is usually a more temperate 1,292 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
But state-of-the-art virtual reality simulations at Purdue University Calumet allow engineers to peer inside blast furnaces at local mills and get a better understanding of their inner workings. They can don 3-D glasses, swoop over the towering furnaces, and follow cascading iron ore pellets and other raw materials inside.
Insights they glean by watching the steelmaking process up close has led to improvements and significant cost reductions. Purdue Cal's Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation, or CIVS, has helped U.S. Steel and other companies save more than $30 million a year, such as by figuring out they can feed the furnaces less coke.
"As I did, you're thinking it might look pretty, it might be fun to watch but how good is it really going to be?" U.S. Steel engineer Jamie Lash said.
"I myself was amazed by some of the stuff they come up with. They do design, troubleshooting, optimization and the whole development cycle. They're able to verify data and tweak different aspects to optimize a process."
It can help with training, he said, and show workers what's going on inside the steel vessel.
Lash and CIVS professors outlined cost-saving projects the laboratory has done for U.S. Steel and other companies at a recent American Institute of Steel Technology Midwest Chapter meeting at Avalon Manor in Hobart. More than 300 companies in the steel industry attended.
CIVS helped U.S. Steel achieve savings by reducing the fuel used in the steelmaking process and squeezing longevity out of its equipment. The Pittsburgh-based steelmaker reached out to the research lab in Hammond when it had yield and productivity issues with its Q-BOP vessel, which holds liquid metal while oxygen is blown through.
Engineers could not see what was happening inside the vessel but were able to use Purdue Cal's virtual simulation to determine how much slag was building up and minimize splashing, Lash said.
The virtual simulations, which are based on data companies provide, reflect real-world conditions. They can be used to chart the lifespan of industrial equipment and minimize costly downtime and maintenance, CIVS research engineer Bin Wu said. U.S. Steel engineers have used Purdue Cal's computer models to analyze cracks on overhead cranes, pinpoint high-stress areas and determine when maintenance needs to be done.
Wu wowed the crowd and drew a comparison to a magician for summoning up a small virtual-reality crane over the clipboard he was holding during his presentation.
CIVS has done such computer simulations for 80 organizations, including BP, NIPSCO and most of the major steelmakers, Director Chenn Zhou said.
"The CIVS center has three keywords: innovation, application and education," she said. "The key strategy is the integration of advanced technology and its application, and the approach is driven by a partnership with businesses, community and industry."