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What is Shaft Furnace Iron Ore Pelletizing Technology? How It Works? 

Release on March 11, 2021



The development of shaft furnace technology for pellet production is deeply intertwined with the broader history of iron ore pelletization—a process essential for efficient, high-quality steel production. This technology has undergone various phases of innovation and adaptation to meet the evolving needs of the steel industry. The predominant commercial large-scale production technologies for fired pellets currently encompass the shaft furnace, the grate-kiln (GK), and the straight grate (SG) systems. Each of these technologies has been developed and refined over the years to meet specific industry needs and operational scales.

Despite its longstanding use, shaft furnace technology is increasingly seen as outdated, mainly due to difficulties in scaling up the furnace size. The intrinsic design and operational limitations of shaft furnaces restrict their capacity, consequently constraining production volumes. This presents a significant disadvantage in an industry where larger-scale operations can drastically enhance economic efficiency. Consequently, the industry trend is shifting towards more adaptable and higher-capacity systems like the grate-kiln (GK) and straight grate (SG) furnaces. These modern technologies can accommodate a broader variety of feedstocks and deliver higher productivity levels along with more uniform output quality.

Iron Ore Pelletization Shaft Furnace System

Development History of Shaft Furnace Technology

The origins of the shaft furnace date back to the early 20th century when various forms of vertical furnaces were used for smelting and direct reduction processes. However, it was not until the mid-20th century that these furnaces were adapted for the pelletizing of iron ore. This adaptation was driven by the need to efficiently process and utilize fine iron ore concentrates, particularly magnetite.

In the early phases, shaft furnaces were relatively basic and had limitations in terms of efficiency and capacity. However, over the decades, technological advancements have improved their design, leading to better control over the pelletizing process and enhanced productivity. Despite these improvements, the fundamental design and operational principles of shaft furnaces have remained relatively unchanged.


Advantages and Disadvantages


Low Capital and Operating Costs: Shaft furnaces require lower initial investments compared to other pelletizing technologies like the grate-kiln (GK) and straight grate (SG) systems. Their operational costs are also generally lower due to simpler construction and less complex maintenance requirements.

Energy Efficiency: These furnaces can be highly energy efficient, especially when integrated into plants that utilize the heat generated from the pelletizing process for other industrial processes.


Limited Feedstock Compatibility: Shaft furnaces are primarily suitable for magnetite concentrates. This limitation arises from the specific properties of magnetite, which allow it to be efficiently processed at the relatively low temperatures achievable in shaft furnaces.

Lower Productivity: Compared to the newer grate-kiln and straight grate systems, shaft furnaces typically achieve lower productivity levels. The maximum capacity, as noted in the case of Benxi Steel in China, caps around 600,000 tonnes per furnace annually—a relatively modest figure when compared to the capacities achievable with more modern systems.

Inconsistent Pellet Quality: The quality of pellets produced in shaft furnaces can be variable. Issues such as non-uniform heating and limited control over the pelletizing environment contribute to this inconsistency, which can affect the downstream steel-making process.

The Future of Shaft Furnace Technology

The future of shaft furnace technology in the iron ore pelletizing industry will likely involve a niche role where it remains viable for specific situations—particularly where low costs are prioritized and the feedstock is primarily magnetite. Despite its limitations, shaft furnace technology continues to hold a significant market share in countries such as China and Vietnam. This prevalence is largely due to its cost-effectiveness and the specific metallurgical processes favored in these regions, which align well with the capabilities of shaft furnaces. However, the technology is considered somewhat outdated, primarily because of the challenges associated with scaling up the size of the furnaces. The inherent design and operational constraints of shaft furnaces limit their capacity, which in turn restricts the volume of production. This is a critical drawback in an industry where scale can significantly impact economic viability. The broader trend in the industry is moving towards more versatile and higher-capacity systems such as the GK and SG furnaces, which can handle a wider range of feedstocks and achieve higher productivity with more consistent output quality.

Ongoing research and development are expected to focus on increasing the efficiency and environmental sustainability of these more modern systems. Innovations such as recycling exhaust gases, integrating renewable energy sources, and enhancing process controls are key areas where significant progress can be expected.

While shaft furnaces might not be at the forefront of this innovation wave, their continued use in certain regions and contexts will ensure that they remain a relevant technology within the pelletizing landscape. For industries in developing regions or those with specific metallurgical requirements that match the capabilities of shaft furnaces, this technology will continue to provide a cost-effective solution.

A shaft furnace, as depicted in Figure 1, uses an external combustion chamber to generate the necessary heat for pellet induration. Hot gas from this chamber is introduced into the furnace where it encounters the descending green pellets, charged from the top. As the pellets move downward, they absorb heat from the gas, increasing in temperature. After heating, the pellets enter a cooling zone before being discharged from the furnace.


Although this method ensures high thermal efficiency due to the extensive contact between the pellets and the hot gas, achieving a uniform temperature distribution within the furnace is challenging. This inconsistency in heating can lead to pellets clustering or sticking to the furnace walls, complicating operations. 

Figure 1.  Flow of Shaft Furnace System

Figure 1  Flow of Shaft Furnace System

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