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Trendy electric arc furnaces seen as growing part of steelmaking

There are two basic ways to make steel in USA. One is from scratch. The other is by recycling.

And as you might expect, the scale is now balanced toward recycling.

Slightly less than 60 percent of raw steel production in the United States is generated in electric arc furnaces, which melt steel scrap to produce new product.

It's the kind of technology Russian steelmaker MMK would employ if it decides to build a mill near Portsmouth along the Ohio River. It's also the type of plant a second group composed largely of Europeans is considering for the Midwest, possibly Ohio.

Altogether, some 125 steel plants in the United States use electric arc furnace technology. They're often called mini-mills because when they first came on the scene their capacity was less than that of the larger integrated mills.

Integrated mills, on the other hand, have blast furnaces and basic oxygen furnaces. They make virgin steel using iron ore, coke and a host of alloys.

ArcelorMittal operates an integrated mill along the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. U.S. Steel is a big integrated producer.

Lately, steel producers have leaned toward electric arc technology because it's cheaper to build, according to steel analyst Charles Bradford in New York. It so happens that the mini-mills also produce fewer greenhouse gases. The gap narrows, however, when you factor in the carbon dioxide output from power plants that provide mini-mills with their electricity.

But electric arc technology will never completely supplant the integrated mills, experts contend, because some virgin steel will always be needed to feed the market. If you continuously recycle steel that's already been recycled, it eventually will become useless.

Eric Stuart, director for energy and environmental affairs at the Steel Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C., estimates that the ratio of recycled steel to virgin steel cannot exceed 70 percent to 30 percent.

The question remains, however, where that 30 percent comes from. Will it come from mills in the United States like the one in Cleveland? Or from mills overseas?

If and when Congress decides how greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced, the answer should become clearer.

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