Chemistry » Transition Metals » Occurrence, Preparation, and Properties of Transition Metals and Their Compounds

Isolation of Iron

Isolation of Iron

The early application of iron to the manufacture of tools and weapons was possible because of the wide distribution of iron ores and the ease with which iron compounds in the ores could be reduced by carbon. For a long time, charcoal was the form of carbon used in the reduction process. The production and use of iron became much more widespread about 1620, when coke was introduced as the reducing agent. Coke is a form of carbon formed by heating coal in the absence of air to remove impurities.

The first step in the metallurgy of iron is usually roasting the ore (heating the ore in air) to remove water, decomposing carbonates into oxides, and converting sulfides into oxides. The oxides are then reduced in a blast furnace that is 80–100 feet high and about 25 feet in diameter (see the figure below) in which the roasted ore, coke, and limestone (impure CaCO3) are introduced continuously into the top. Molten iron and slag are withdrawn at the bottom. The entire stock in a furnace may weigh several hundred tons.

A diagram of a blast furnace is shown. The furnace has a cylindrical shape that is oriented vertically. A pipe at the lower left side of the figure is shaded yellow and is labeled “Slag.” It connects to an interior chamber. Situated at a level just below this piping on the right side of the figure is another pipe that is shaded orange. It opens at the lower right side of the figure. The orange-shaded substance at the bottom of the chamber that matches the contents of the pipe to its right is labeled “Molten iron.” The pipe has an arrow exiting to the right pointing to the label “Outlet.” Just above the slag and molten iron regions is narrower tubing on both the left and right sides of the chamber which lead slightly up and out from the central chamber to small oval shapes. These shapes are labeled, “Preheated air.” The region just above the points of entry of these two pipes or tubes into the chamber is a white region in which small rust-colored chunks of material appear suspended. This region tapers slightly to the bottom of the furnace. The region above has an orange background in which small rust-colored chunks are similarly suspended. This region fills nearly half of the interior of the furnace. Above this region is a grey shaded region. At the very top of the furnace, black line segments indicate directed openings through which small rust-colored chunks of material appear to be entering the furnace from the top. This material is labeled, “Roasted ore, coke, limestone.” Exiting the grey shaded interior region to the right is a pipe. An arrow points right exiting the pipe pointing to the label “C O, C O subscript 2, N subscript 2.” At the right side of the figure, furnace heights are labeled in order of increasing height between the outlet pipes, followed by temperatures and associated chemical reactions. Just above the pipe labeled, “Outlet,” no chemical equation appears right of, “5 f t, 1510 degrees C.” To the right of, “15 f t, 1300 degrees C,” is the equation, “C plus O subscript 2 right pointing arrow C O subscript 2.” To the right of, “25 f t, 1125 degrees C,” are the two equations, “C a O plus S i O subscript 2 right pointing arrow C a S i O subscript 3” and “C plus C O subscript 2 right pointing arrow 2 C O.” To the right of, “35 f t, 945 degrees C,” are the two equations, “C a C O subscript 3 right pointing arrow C a O plus C O subscript 2,” and, “C plus C O subscript 2 right pointing arrow 2 C O.” To the right of, “45 f t, 865 degrees C,” is the equation, “C plus C O subscript 2 right pointing arrow 2 C O.” To the right of, “55 f t, 525 degrees C,” is the equation “F e O plus C O right pointing arrow F e plus C O subscript 2.” To the right of, “65 f t, 410 degrees C,” is the equation, “F e subscript 3 O subscript 4 plus C O right pointing arrow 3 F e O plus C O subscript 2.” To the right of “75 f t, 230 degrees C,” is the equation, “3 F e subscript 2 O subscript 3 plus C O right pointing arrow 2 F e subscript 3 O subscript 4 plus C O subscript 2.”

Within a blast furnace, different reactions occur in different temperature zones. Carbon monoxide is generated in the hotter bottom regions and rises upward to reduce the iron oxides to pure iron through a series of reactions that take place in the upper regions.

Near the bottom of a furnace are nozzles through which preheated air is blown into the furnace. As soon as the air enters, the coke in the region of the nozzles is oxidized to carbon dioxide with the liberation of a great deal of heat. The hot carbon dioxide passes upward through the overlying layer of white-hot coke, where it is reduced to carbon monoxide:

\({\text{CO}}_{2}(g)+\text{C}(s)\;⟶\;\text{2CO}(g)\)

The carbon monoxide serves as the reducing agent in the upper regions of the furnace. The individual reactions are indicated in the figure above.

The iron oxides are reduced in the upper region of the furnace. In the middle region, limestone (calcium carbonate) decomposes, and the resulting calcium oxide combines with silica and silicates in the ore to form slag. The slag is mostly calcium silicate and contains most of the commercially unimportant components of the ore:

\(\text{CaO}(s)+{\text{SiO}}_{2}(s)\;⟶\;{\text{CaSiO}}_{3}(l)\)

Just below the middle of the furnace, the temperature is high enough to melt both the iron and the slag. They collect in layers at the bottom of the furnace; the less dense slag floats on the iron and protects it from oxidation. Several times a day, the slag and molten iron are withdrawn from the furnace. The iron is transferred to casting machines or to a steelmaking plant (see the figure below).

This figure shows a photo of molten iron. A bright yellow-orange glow appears just left of center in the figure. Smoke appears to be rising toward the top center of the figure. Just below and to the right, sparks appear to be falling.

Molten iron is shown being cast as steel. (credit: Clint Budd)

Much of the iron produced is refined and converted into steel. Steel is made from iron by removing impurities and adding substances such as manganese, chromium, nickel, tungsten, molybdenum, and vanadium to produce alloys with properties that make the material suitable for specific uses. Most steels also contain small but definite percentages of carbon (0.04%–2.5%). However, a large part of the carbon contained in iron must be removed in the manufacture of steel; otherwise, the excess carbon would make the iron brittle.

Optional Video:

You can watch an animation of steelmaking that walks you through the process.

[Attributions and Licenses]


This is a lesson from the tutorial, Transition Metals and you are encouraged to log in or register, so that you can track your progress.

Log In

Share Thoughts