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Stainless Steel & Special Alloys

Extract BIR Annual Report 2023

New world order for the “wonder alloy”

For stainless steel output, the shift in the global balance of power has never been more pronounced than it was in 2023. 

Figures released by worldstainless in early 2024 have revealed that stainless steel melt shop production totalled 42.6 million tonnes in the first three quarters of last year for an increase of 2.5% over January-September 2022. At the time of writing this report, leading analysts are expecting production growth of approximately 4% for 2023 as a whole, thus largely counterbalancing the 5.2% drop recorded in 2022. 

But to say the least, last year’s recovery in stainless steel production was far from evenly spread; in fact, it was driven exclusively by China. While production was falling 8% in Europe, 12.9% in the USA and 12.4% in Asia (excluding China and South Korea), Chinese output in the first nine months of 2023 was a remarkable 13.4% higher than in the corresponding period of 2022 at 26.6 million tonnes. 

China’s production increased by approximately 3.1 million tonnes in the opening three quarters of last year whereas the global total was barely 1 million tonnes higher than in January-September 2022. Again at the time of writing, experts are suggesting that Chinese stainless steel production could have topped 36 million tonnes last year. If this is combined with Indonesia’s output, we arrive at a total of around 40 million tonnes for the two countries – or close to 69% of global production.

The scale of the shift in market dominance is made plain by the fact that Europe and the USA produced a combined 5.8 million tonnes of stainless steel in the first nine months of 2023, or approximately 22% of China’s volumes over the same period.

For stainless steel producers in Europe and beyond, the harsh, day-to-day reality has been commercial pressure resulting from lower-cost imports from Asia. This pressure ebbs and flows, but is forever present. During 2023, some mills were forced to make difficult business decisions in a bid to keep their costs low and their production viable, such as temporary lay-off schemes. 

Looking ahead, however, sustainability and ESG considerations will make it increasingly difficult to import NPI-based stainless into the EU. But the big plus for everyone involved in this story is stainless steel demand, with excellent long-term prospects almost everywhere you look.

Emerging and fast-growing nations are racking up some particularly impressive growth numbers. At our meeting in Abu Dhabi last October, Hitesh Agrawal of Jindal Stainless pointed to projections from the Indian Stainless Steel Development Association and CRISIL Research that annual stainless steel demand in India would surge an astonishing 3 million tonnes over the remainder of the current decade to almost 7 million tonnes. Importantly, stainless steel produced in India is based largely on recycled feedstock. 

A major challenge, said Mr Agrawal, would be to secure sufficient quantities of recycled steel in the current climate of raw material protectionism. So while market prospects for scrap are healthy, its full circular economy potential can be realised only through the free and fair trade for which BIR has passionately argued over many decades. 

Mr Agrawal rightly described stainless steel as a “wonder alloy” given its range of positive properties, including strength and heat/corrosion resistance. And in a world where carbon footprint has become an ever more important yardstick, stainless steel boasts some of the most impressive credentials available. As noted in Abu Dhabi by
Dr Gerhard Pariser of Oryx Stainless, a recent lifecycle assessment conducted by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute found that making a tonne of 304 stainless steel with 100% primary material generates 7.82 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent whereas this figure drops to 3.62 tonnes with 70% recycled stainless steel and to 0.8 tonnes at 100% recycled steel.

Dr Pariser reminded us that “there is no ‘green steel’ and no ‘green stainless steel’ without scrap”. This is a statement well worth remembering whenever our industry’s vast social, economic and environmental contribution is called into question. 

At our meeting last year in Amsterdam,
Prof. Dr Frank Pothen of the Ernst-Abbe-Hochschule Jena University of Applies Sciences and the Fraunhofer Center for International Management and Knowledge Economy IMW in Germany favoured incentives to use scrap over mandatory utilization quotas, while fellow guest Markus Moll of Steel & Metals Market Research confirmed massive scope for increasing scrap’s contribution to this green revolution given that its 41% share of the global raw materials mix in 2022 was one of the lowest numbers for many years. 

What goes down hopefully comes back up even more strongly.

“There is no ‘green steel’ and no ‘green stainless steel’ without scrap.”

Joost van Kleef

ORYX Stainless BV (NLD)
CHAIRMAN STAINLESS STEEL & SPECIAL ALLOYS COMMITTEE
Infography

IMPORTANT FACTS

Stainless steel is an iron alloy that contains nickel and chromium to protect it against corrosion and rust. This material is remarkably strong and resistant to high temperatures, providing optimum performance under severe environmental and chemical conditions. Stainless steel’s inherent physical properties make it ideal for use in the construction, automotive and transportation sectors. Its versatility also makes it a popular material in household items such as kitchen appliances and cutlery.

Demand growth for stainless steel has outstripped that of most other metals over the last few decades. At a recent BIR Convention, it was noted that the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for stainless steel was 5.6% for the period from 2000 to 2018, with China recording a particularly strong CAGR of more than 14% over that same period. There was an increase of 4.8% in global crude stainless steel production to 52.43 million tonnes in 2018, with output becoming ever more dominated by Asia with its world production share of around 80%.

Besides nickel and chromium, other major alloying elements used in combination with steel include molybdenum, titanium, tungsten and vanadium. These metals are scarce and only available in very few parts of the world, which makes extraction costly and difficult. Recycling is therefore essential to minimizing depletion of the planet’s natural resources; as a result, the recycling industry has become a vital player in providing a stable supply of quality secondary raw material.

RECYCLING PROCESSES

SORTING

BALING

MELTING

Most special alloys are very similar in appearance. Sophisticated identification technologies, including X-ray spectrometry, are used to separate and prepare each type. Recycling stainless steel is a similar process to the one used for other ferrous metals.

Sorting: Given that many forms of stainless steel are non-magnetic, this metal cannot be easily separated from other recyclables in a recycling facility with magnetic belts.

Shearing: Hydraulic machinery capable of exerting enormous pressure is used to cut thick, heavy stainless steel into smaller pieces.

Baling: Stainless steel products are compacted into large blocks to improve ease of handling and transportation.
 
Media separation: Shredders incorporate rotating magnetic drums to separate ferrous metals from other materials. Further separation is achieved using electrical currents, high-pressure air flows and liquid flotation systems. 
 
Melting: The recovered materials are melted together in a furnace. This process is determined by the level of purity necessary for the future applications of the secondary raw material. The melted stainless steel is then poured into casters and shaped into ingots or slabs. Later, they can be rolled into flat sheets that are used to manufacture new products.

APPLICATIONS & RECYCLING FACTS

APPLICATIONS

Stainless steel is 100% recyclable and loses none of its original physical properties in the process. The most common applications include:

  • Construction: Excellent corrosion resistance, strength and malleability allow for the construction of attractive, low-maintenance and durable curtain walls and roofs.
  • Food storage and production: Stainless steel resists colonization of bacteria, does not alter the taste of foods, and is easily cleaned and sterilized.
  • Transport: Passenger rail cars of today’s high-speed trains are often constructed of stainless steel, which offers structural strength and improved crash protection.
  • Healthcare: Most surgical instruments are made of stainless steel because of its strength and resistance to regular cleaning and sterilization.
  • Households: Stainless steel has been traditionally used in cutlery, cookware and appliances.

RECYCLING FACTS

  • Recycling one tonne of steel saves 1100 kg of iron ore, 630 kg of coal and 55 kg of limestone.
  • The average stainless steel object is composed of around 60% recycled material.
  • Approximately 90% of end-of-life stainless steel is collected and recycled into new products.

Committee

Chairman

Joost van Kleef

Oryx Stainless B.V. (NLD)

Omar Al Sharif

Sharif Metals, Int'l LLC (ARE)

Rosie Hill

Ireland Alloys Ltd. (GBR)

Doug Kramer

Spectrum Alloys LLC (USA)

Ritesh Maheshwari

Shabro International Pte Ltd (IND)

Mahiar R. Patel

Cronimet (SGP)
General Delegate

Joe Pickard

ReMA (USA)

Ruggero Ricco

Nichel Leghe Spa (ITA)

Vegas Yang

HSKU Raw Material Ltd, Taiwan (CHN)