What Gerdau Ameristeel’s plant does is pretty basic: It takes scrap metal and turns it into usable metal. That’s it. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, old cars, appliances, just about anything made of metal are melted and turned into  miles of red glowing ropes of steel.

 

Gerdau turns about 550,000 tons or 1.1 billion pounds of scrap each into reinforcing bar, the rods used in concrete. It makes about 150,000 miles of that each year. And it makes about 18,000 miles of wire rod each year.

Just off Interstate 10 and U.S. 301 on the outskirts of Baldwin, the Gerdau plant is the only steel mill in Florida and its largest recycler of metal. On Friday, it celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Carlos Zanoela, vice president and general manager, said he buys scrap from a variety of sources, large and small, including 200 families who bring it in by the pickup truck. They’re the people that cruise neighborhoods the day before trash pickup, collecting anything metal.

But 95 percent comes from bigger scrap dealers. Gerdau has mountains of it, from big chunks of discarded machinery to small shavings from machine shops. About 900 automobiles are shredded each month and turned into football-size chunks of anonymous metal.

Magnets pull the steel out during processing. Non-ferrous metals such as aluminum and copper are collected and sold, earning Gerdau about $500,000 a month.

There’s always a certain amount of other stuff — cloth, plastics, etc. — that are left over. Gerdau calls that fluff, and it goes to the landfill. Zanoelo said they’d tried to sell it, but it just wasn’t economically viable.

The steel that’s left, in all its shapes and forms, is loaded, 100 tons a time, into large buckets lined with three feet of brick. The heat comes from three huge electrodes that are inserted into the buckets. But it has to be precise, less than an inch away from the scrap.

“If it touches,” Zaneolo said, “you just get a current. If it’s too far, it takes too much electricity.”

That 100 tons melts in 32 minutes, he said. Think about that: All those pieces, all those tons are turned into 3,000-degree yellow-white liquid that quickly.

“People either think we’re crazy or they’re in awe,” said Ronnie Jenkins as he sat the computer controls, behind windows and in air conditioning. “I’m in awe every day I come in.”

Iron oxide floats to the top, but that’s not something they want. So that’s pulled off first. Jenkins opens a hatch and out it flows, looking like chunky lava coming down a hillside, the kind of stuff that burns everything in its path. But this is about twice as hot as red lava.

The chemistry of the molten steel that’s left has to be checked and alloys added if needed.

“Thirty to 50 years ago,” Zanoelo said, “someone had to stand in front of that to get a sample.”

Now Jenkins sends a machine to pull that sample out. When it’s ready to go, the bottom of the bucket is opened and out the white liquid flows.

It goes into another brick-lined vessel which funnels it out of square holes, forming the billets that the mill needs to produce rebar and wire.

About six inches square, they’re still white hot when they come out. They’re cut into 30-foot pieces and left to cool from white to yellow to red to gray, making the entire room as hot as you imagine a steel mill would be.

Even though the billets have turned gray on the surface, they’re still red-hot underneath, still pliable.

They’re about 1,800 degrees, Zanoelo said, solid but very flexible.

Before they harden, they’re run through a series of roller presses. Think of them as endless pasta machines, each one reducing the size of that solid but flexible bar which is still red as it passes through.

The farther down the line, the more the presses have to speed up the way water goes faster through a tight space. The same amount of metal has to go through as at the beginning of the line, but because the wire is so much smaller, the presses have to go faster.

The smallest wire, 5.5 mm, is moving at 185 miles an hour by the end of the run. And one billet produces more than 3.5 miles of that wire.

The wire rod is used in a variety of industries. ClosetMaid in Ocala is one of the Gerdau’s biggest customers, buying 2,500 tons of wire a year to turn into shelves.

The rebar heads off to the construction industry, but Zanoleo said he faces plenty of competition. Forty percent of rebar used in Florida is imported, he said. Turkey is the largest of those.

“They buy scrap here in the United States, raises prices here,” he said. “They take it back to Turkey, bring the rebar back and compete with us again.”

 

Roger Bull: (904) 359-4296