A Hi-tech Rethink for Rail and Steel

Jul 5, 2021

The right kind of investment could make Italy’s Piombino steelworks a DRI success story

By Francesco Rao


Piombino in high-tech rail? Will Piombino become a laboratory? Direct reduction technology (DRI), port logistics, hardened rails, naval development areas, a school.

The oldest Italian steel mill is the only national manufacturer of rails, including those designed for high-speed trains. But, its strategic logistics area of two hundred hectares leads to a variety of considerations. Today owned by the Indian giant JSW Steel, it has been stalled for years, with investments at a standstill since 1999.

According to statements made in recent months by Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti, the government’s idea for Piombino is that, in addition to public investment in JSW Steel Italy,  a third, private partner will support the Indian parent company and Invitalia in renovating and relaunching the steel mill.
A name being mentioned in this context is Hayange, the largest French rail manufacturer which, with new proprietary assets after Liberty Steel, could create an axis with Piombino: in fact, there are twelve steel producers — including the Italian Beltrame and above all in pole position Acciaierie Venete — which are interested in acquiring the Liberty Ascoval and Hayange plants.

Gianpietro Benedetti, President of Danieli – world leader in steel plants, surprised everyone with a stunning proposal. Make Piombino the national hub for DRI production with iron ore from scrap steel, used to feed electric arc furnaces. If this choice were made, it would also help reduce volatility in the price of scrap, currently subject to strong surges due to shortages and speculative maneuvers in international markets.

“The proposals of Minister Giorgetti and Danieli’s President Benedetti could come together to make Piombino a great DRI production site, resolving Italy’s chronic scrap shortage. But there are a number of technical and economic, industrial, logistical and environmental difficulties that must be overcome starting from the design phase of the plants,” notes expert Piero Nardi, who previously served as special commissioner for the Piombino steelworks. Regarding the idea of a union between Hayange and Piombino, he underlines that the operation “would create the second hub for rail production in Europe after Voestalpine, and could then make an investment by the Italian State in Piombino and the French State in Hayange a sensible option. As a strategic product, rails would be protected from non-European interventions.”

So, now there’s an express train to Piombino that’s not to be missed, that is, a great opportunity for the country. Carmine Zappacosta, CEO of Italcertifer (FS Group), railway-safety leader, notes that rails are increasingly a key industry worldwide.
And Giuseppe Ferrario, former head of Primetals in Italy, notes: “This is the opportunity, first of all, to relaunch the production of rails in Italy, which are a strategic asset and an export opportunity. Italy boasts international leaders such as RFI, Italcertifer, Italferr, and various plant engineering companies for the development of railway networks. We need meaningful synergy with railway wheel and axle production, in which Italy is still a leader. The wheel-rail combination is the basic element of railway technology, both for high axial loads and high speed: material development and monitoring technologies must all move forward together. We must strengthen the Italian supply chain by reducing the market dependence of scrap.”


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