A couple of pilot plants, including the plant here, have been able to turn specially concentrated iron pellets, coal and some other compounds into pig iron, which is one step below steel. Direct iron-making, as this step is called, eliminates the need for costly and dirty coke ovens by combining the functions of coke ovens and blast furnaces.
In the 18 test firings at the Universal plant since it was brought on line June 18, researchers have produced as much as 4.2 tons of pig iron an hour directly from pellets and coal, project officials said.
Though they said it is too soon to figure out how much it costs to produce iron this way, or how much pollution they may be able to eliminate using their new methods, other industry experts said data compiled from similar plants in Germany and South Africa show just how much promise the process has.
Ronald Visness, manager of mineral development for the state of Minnesota, said he and his staff conducted experiments on some competing direct iron-making plants abroad. He discovered that though the direct iron-making plants used about the same amount of coal to make a ton of pig iron as American conventional plants would have used, the new system cut air pollution drastically.
For example, he said, the new system put out only /th of the dust that a conventional plant would have sent into the air to make an equivalent amount of pig iron. Sulfur dioxide pollution was reduced by more than half, he said.
In addition, Mr. Visness said steel company studies have showed that the new system cuts the cost of producing a ton of pig iron by about $25 from a conventional plant's cost of about $125.
The foreign system he tested, called Corex, works so well that one company is already operating a commercially successful direct iron-making plant in South Africa, he said.
Similar research successes abroad are causing some industry experts here to criticize the domestic steelmakers for their slow start in the technological race.
The AISI plans to finish up its tests at the small pilot plant here by 1992, but Japan's government and steelmakers, for example, have already committed several hundred million dollars to a plan to build a 500-ton-per-day direct iron facility by 1993.
"We've lagged behind. . . . It is very depressing," said Phillip Grub, a professor at George Washington University who has studied the steel industry. "Like American industry everywhere, steel executives have been too concerned about short-term, quarterly profits. They haven't been looking toward the long term," Mr. Grub said.
But Bethlehem's Mr. Jolley defended the domestic industry, saying that multibillion-dollar losses in the early 1980s forced the domestic steelmakers to slash all their expenses -- including research -- to stay alive.
Now that American steelmakers are investing in new processes, they are trying to make up for their reduced budgets and delays by working smarter, he said.
The Japanese project, for example, is aimed only at making iron, and is using a less promising technology than the Universal project, he said.
The Americans hope to leapfrog other countries by pushing the iron-making technique to fit steel as well, he said.
If the steelmaking research moves ahead as hoped, Mr. Jolley said it would likely take more than 20 years before companies like Bethlehem would start applying the technology commercially.
But even if the steel technology doesn't pan out, Mr. Jolley said he is so encouraged by the direct iron-making results that he gives that process a "better than 50-50 chance" of winning commercial success.
Though these changes may mean far fewer jobs in an industry that has been shrinking for a decade, the steelworkers' union is supporting the research project, said Mike Locker, a New York consultant who works for the union.
"The union accepts the implications of the advancing technology," Mr. Locker said. "We are quite concerned with making the U.S. industry as world-competitive as possible."