Researcher Promotes Use of Solar to Heat Crucial Steel Part

Lina Hockaday, Senior Engineer in Pyrometallurgy at Mintek’s New Technology Group in South Africa, suggests that solar thermal reactors, able to attain temperatures up to 1200 °C, could almost eliminate emissions from processing manganese ore fines, by using solar sintering.

South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, where Lina Hockaday is doing her PhD in solar sintering of manganese ores, was well represented at the SolarPACES International Conference of cutting edge CSP researchers. (Credit: SolarPACES)

Manganese is the world’s fourth most used metal, at six million tons a year. It is needed for everything from skyscrapers to cars, used in iron to make steel sturdy. South Africa mines 80% of world’s manganese ores.

However, the fossil energy used to sinter manganese ores makes it highly carbon-intensive. By 2020, South Africa alone will create 3.4 million tons of sinter, producing nearly a million and a half tons of CO2 annually.

“My research question is, can we use solar to replace fossil fuel combustion? I’m trying to prove this concept on a small scale, and then describe it well enough that we can say this will work on a large scale,” said Hockaday, whose research is the subject of her PhD at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Her concept is unique. Other researchers globally are analyzing solar heat for other mining processes, but not to utilize solar to sinter manganese ore fines.

She presented her paper ‘Solar Thermal Treatment of Manganese Ores’ based on her experimental results, at the 23rd Annual SolarPACES Conference in Chile, on the proof of concept.

What are manganese ore fines and how are they sintered?

Fines are the fine particles of manganese ore formed when crushing manganese rocks. The fines are heated to sinter them (make them stick together, or become “agglomerated”).

The mines produce a lot of fines. But they can’t sell them, as furnaces won’t buy materials that are too fine.

Lina Hockaday, Senior Engineer in Pyrometallurgy, Mintek’s New Technology Group

So the mines isolate the fines, and agglomerate them together into bigger pellets between 6 mm and 75 mm, by wetting them to make them sticky, and rolling them into lumps referred to as green sinter, mixing in around 10% of coke particles.

Then these green sinter “mud balls” are heated in a sintering machine on conveyor belts to around 600 °C with diesel burners which make the coke burn, resulting in the temperature rising to 1200 °C, at which point the outer surfaces of the mud balls somewhat melt, making them sturdier and more cohesive.

As well as substituting diesel to heat the green sinter, Hockaday is certain she can also eliminate the coke combustion, for a carbon reduction of up to 100%, even though the traditional industry has been cynical.

Some have raised the question that we need a reducing atmosphere because that’s the way it’s always been done. But thermodynamically we should be able to get away with not adding coke fines, just sintering with solar energy. There’s no reaction that we can see that this requires carbon. So I hope to actually show that we can do this without any coke.

Lina Hockaday, Senior Engineer in Pyrometallurgy, Mintek’s New Technology Group

After the fines are sintered, they then use an electric arc furnace or a blast furnace, to smelt the manganese iron into manganese alloys.

It is here that fines would be a big risk for virtually gumming up the works or even causing explosions. In the blast furnace, hot gases are created by the reduction reactions.

These furnaces work with layers of chunky material, and you need spaces for the gases from the reactions to rise up through this material and escape at the top of the furnace. If you have fine particles, almost powder, you can imagine how this fills the pores, preventing the gases from escaping,” she explained.

Solar reactors can get hot enough to sinter the world’s 4th most used metal

Hockaday used a 2 m diameter dish-type heliostat that produces extremely focused intense heat at 955 °C within a small solar furnace comprising sample ores about a meter above the heliostat.

A small solar reactor with compactly focused solar flux highly concentrated on a single point can reach the range of very high temperatures that are required to accomplish thermochemical reactions. Solar reactors can be built specifically for their process applications, just like solar thermal energy plants are engineered to combine with power blocks.

The more you can focus sunshine collected over a large area on that small point the higher temperatures you achieve,” she said.

Primarily, Hockaday discovered that directly exposing particles to the concentrated solar heat did not sufficiently heat and sinter particles in the back of the experimental furnace.

Presently she is developing a setup that will instead use convection heat transfer with a closed loop with air flowing all through the sample.

“This is similar to what happens in the traditional sinters, they draw air through the sinter to combust the carbon,” she explained. “That leads to very fast heat transfer so they can melt the particles relatively quickly. And I’m hoping to demonstrate that if we apply the same principle to the small solar sinter experiment we will get better heat transfer throughout the sample, so that’s my next step.”

Swapping from direct to indirect solar heating will create new trials: the heat of the process will now have to be higher, above 1200 °C, because, “in order to heat something through heat exchange, the heat transfer medium has to be hotter than your target temperature.”

Inventing real life commercial solar sintering

Hockaday’s two-decade dream is to see a commercial solar sintering industry.

Her research is the initial step to attaining this dream, “to develop the technology so that when we need this we are ready.” At commercial scale, the solar sintering plants she foresees would be the size of Crescent Dunes, the first utility-scale 100 MW CSP tower plant.

At that scale we would need the right materials to handle the high temperatures because if you raise your manganese ore temperature to 1200 °C the environment around it will be at similar temperatures, so your construction materials become more challenging as you go to higher temperatures.

Lina Hockaday

With her career in pyrometallurgy, she trusts that this can be handled with the appropriate  materials and engineering, “I come from the background of furnaces where we work with temperatures from 1300 °C to 1800 °C,” she related.

Lina further stated, “These are the things that we have to demonstrate first on the small scale to figure out what materials will we have to use and what our efficiency is going to be, and as we discover this, along the road we will be able to draw a picture of our future solar sinter.”

Solar sinters make sense in South Africa with ample space and sun. Most of the remaining 20% of worldwide manganese comes from Australia, India, China, and Brazil, also countries with plentiful space and decent solar resources for thermal solar processes.

“At this point, I’m just using about 500 grams of ores, so you can see when people are talking industrial scale and they are talking 500 kilotons a year, it is a faraway dream,” she laughed.

But I hope to, in my lifetime, push it through the pilot station stage and through the demonstration stage. Then my dream would be that the technology would be mature, and viable, and could be applied commercially. So my work is at the beginning of this journey.”

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