A steel lecture in a steel city

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2017

The Sir Henry Bessemer Lecture, organised by the Institute's Iron and Steel Society, was held on 10 November in Sheffield, UK, a city known for its history of steel production. Kathryn Allen reports. 

Developments in today’s steel industry provided a prominent theme throughout Bessemer Day 2017. The master class – aimed at young professionals and students – covered steel product development and application, while the Bessemer Lecture focused on Progress in steel product research to advance the industry and society. John G Speer, John Henry Moore Distinguished Professor of Physical Metallurgy at Colorado School of Mines, USA, delivered both. At the master class, Speer was supported by mentors from Cogent Power, Colorado School of Mines, the Iron and Steel Society, Jaguar Land Rover, Liberty Speciality Steels, Outokumpu Stainless, Rolls-Royce, Sheffield Forgemasters, Tata Steel and UKAEA. The Master Class theme was selected to align with Speer’s involvement in steel product development and university cooperative research involving users and producers of steel. 

Heroes of yesterday

Winner of the Bessemer Gold Medal, Speer was born in a city also known for its steel industry – Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA. He received a BS degree in Metallurgy and Materials Engineering from Lehigh University, USA, and a DPhil in Physical Metallurgy from the University of Oxford, UK. Speer’s expertise include microalloying and high-strength low-alloy steels, as well as steel product development and fundamentals related to microstructure development. 

Speer began his lecture by explaining his desire ‘to honour people who have contributed to the advancement of steel products over many decades, and identify some heroes of yesterday, today and tomorrow.’ He aligned the steel towns of Sheffield and Bethlehem, offering a brief history of the latter, the Bethlehem Steel Corporation and its historical connection to the Bessemer Medal – listing previous winners, including Charles Schwab, Eugene G Grace and John Fritz. He also mentioned the 1905 Bessemer Medallist, John Oliver Arnold, a professor at the University of Sheffield. Arnold was one of the people involved in the early discovery of the effects of vanadium in steel, which was important to the mass production of automobiles in America. 

In terms of steel product development, he explained, Sheffield is renowned for producing knives and cutlery since the 14th Century. Additionally, in 1853 wire-drawer James Horsfall developed a process for making fine-pearlitic patented wire. ‘It's really amazing that people were able to make these kinds of advancements in technology without the tools such as advanced microscopes that we take for granted today,’ said Speer. Horsfall’s invention helped to manufacture the first transatlantic telegraph cable. 

The lecture continued with Speer summarising Alexander L Holley’s contribution to the steel industry, having purchased the US rights to the Bessemer process and developing, installing and improving some of his early furnaces in the USA.

Speer explained that 'Bessemer steel helped build America, opening up the USA' with an extensive rail network. 'Heroic advancements by steel product developers have enabled some crucial aspects of modern society,’ he said. 

‘Without the work of the following, we wouldn't have the skyscraper and rail infrastructures that are important for today’s society and will continue to be in the future.’ Speer went on to acknowledge the achievements of John Fritz, Robert F Mushet, Sir Robert Hadfield and more recently Professor Brian Pickering, before acknowledging J Malcolm Gray, Professor David Edmonds, Professor Sir Harry Bhadeshia, his colleagues Professors David Matlock and George Krauss among others. 

New developments

The heroes of tomorrow include emerging steel product leaders such as Sheffield-educated Dr David Hanlon of Tata Steel. While offering an extensive history of contributors to the steel industry, Speer made clear that he hadn’t time to list all those crucial to the industry’s development. But he urged, ‘It’s time for the next generation of heroes to step up.’ 

While not saying if he considers himself to be among those, he mentioned his own contributions briefly, highlighting the quenching and partitioning (Q+P) development he is working on, alongside around 45 different steel projects, with a team at the Advanced Steel Processing and Products Research Center. This heat-treatment process produces martensitic microstructures with substantial amounts of retained austenite. A fully austenitic or intercritical microstructure is obtained by reheating the steel, which is then quenched to a carefully controlled temperature – between the martensite start temperature and the martensite finish temperature – to achieve a microstructure which contains austenite, martensite and sometimes ferrite. The steel is then kept at the same temperature – known as the quench temperature – or is heated to a partitioning temperature to enrich the untransformed austenite with carbon.
After final quenching, the resulting martensitic microstructure with metastable retained austenite has heightened formability, toughness and/or wear resistance. The Q+P process is being employed industrially as the formable high-strength steels produced are useful in automotive applications.  

After the event, Speer told Materials World, ‘I enjoyed the opportunity to learn about some of the Bessemer Award winners, as well as the link to my heritage in Bethlehem and Bethlehem Steel, not to mention some of the better-known winners such as Andrew Carnegie and British monarchs. It is quite an honour for me, as well as our Advanced Steel Processing and Products Research Center, to be part of this history going forward.’

Thanks are due to the event's sponsors – British Steel, Harsco Metals and Minerals, Liberty Speciality Steels, Primetals Technologies and Tata Steel – whose support enables the Iron and Steel Society to run Bessemer Day in its current form. 

Winners of the Iron and Steel Society Awards can be found at bit.ly/2AMenQ0