Saturday, June 11, 2011

Hey, can someone please shut down this blast furnace?

Gather round, kids; it's time for your semi-annual lesson in metallurgy! (Actually, I don't think I've ever given a metallurgy lesson here before, but after you read today's post, you're definitely going to want it to be a semi-annual thing. Trust me.)

As a metallurgical engineer, I've spent my fair share of time in heat treat shops, metalcasting foundries and steel mills. I find these places intensely fascinating - there's something hypnotic and awe-inspiring about glowing liquid metal and the processes by which it is produced.

Let's take steelmaking, for example. The first step in steelmaking is the chemical conversion of iron ore into a type of iron metal called pig iron. This process, known as smelting, takes place in a large chimney-like tower known as a blast furnace. Iron ore (which is basically rusty-looking rock) is fed into the top of the tower, along with coke (a coal derivative), which I assure you is neither an illegal controlled substance, nor a fizzy beverage. Very hot air, known as "blast", is blown into the bottom of the tower (at about 2200ºF), where it combines with the iron ore and coke from the top. This combination of materials, heat and oxygen produces a chemical reaction (aka, "magic") that causes the iron atoms to release from the ore as a hot liquid pig iron. The bottom of the blast furnace is tapped with a drill, the liquid pig iron pours into special rail cars to be transported to the next stage of the steelmaking process.

Blast furnaces like this one are used to convert iron ore into pig iron. They are really, really, REALLY hot. I mean, like, REALLY.

Now please wake up so I can explain why I just told you all that crap! Did you all realize that the term "sweat like a pig" has absolutely nothing to do with pigs of the animal type? It is, in fact, related to the production of pig iron in the steelmaking process. When pig iron is cool enough to be used in the next step of steelmaking, beads of condensation form on the surface. It begins to "sweat". And I'll bet you thought metallurgy had no practical application to running... just think of pig iron the next time you're pouring sweat during a hard interval workout!

It should come as no surprise that blast furnaces, and the buildings in which they are housed, are quite toasty; steelmaking is not for the faint of heart. If you don't believe me, just take a gander at this video of a blast furnace in action. Steelmaking will make anyone sweat like a pig.

But you know what else is not for the faint of heart? Running in Central Illinois in the summer heat.

Earlier this week, I went for some runs that felt exactly like running around a blast furnace. And for those who doubt my comparison... yes, I have been around a blast furnace; I know what it feels like (although I will admit I've never been compelled to run around one).

Last Saturday, my 12-mile long run was a hot, miserable slog, even at 7 o'clock in the morning. Sunday wasn't much of an improvement, although at least there was cloud cover and rain to cool me off a little bit. On Monday, my afternoon "easy" 3-mile run was anything but easy as I battled a heat index of 96°, a hot wind, and glaring sunshine. And Tuesday, at a 93º FAST run, I found my pace slipping with each consecutive 400m repeat, while my effort seemed to increase exponentially. It was only a 4 mile run, but I could not have run any farther if I wanted to. It was just ridiculous.

So after several days in a row of running in the Blast Furnace Zone, I really needed a break. The heat was dragging me down both physically and mentally.

The forecast for Wednesday called for more of the same - relentlessly hot, humid, and sunny. I wanted nothing to do with it. It was time to revisit my old friend, the indoor track. Some might say running in circles is worse than running in the searing heat. I respectfully disagree. Of course, I have logged so many miles on the indoor track, thanks to training for the indoor marathon last winter, that I have learned to find enjoyment in it.

And believe me, I enjoyed every one of my 75 laps (10 miles) around the track in relatively cool comfort. It was actually pretty warm and humid on the track, but it was much cooler than the 95º weather outside. My effort felt easy the whole time, my pace wasn't reduced to a crawl, I sweated but not like a pig, and when I was done, I felt like I could've kept going. It was exactly the boost in morale that I needed.

Mother Nature has finally given us a little break outside, and for a few days the temperatures should stay below 80º. What is it they say about the weather in Illinois? If you don't like it, just wait 5 minutes and it will change. Or 5 days, as the case may be. One minute it's a blast furnace, the next minute it's a cryogenic treatment chamber (that's another metallurgy lesson for another day... probably a day in the middle of winter).

So kids, let's sum up the steelmaking-running analogy (because there will be a quiz later): In Illinois in the summertime, we sometimes have to run in blast-furnace-like temperatures, which causes us to sweat like pigs (of the iron variety, not the animal variety).

For your homework, I expect you all to memorize the process of converting iron ore to pig iron. And I would like a 4-page typed, single-spaced essay on the history of steelmaking and how it relates to the sport of long-distance running. Extra credit for anyone who includes credible references to Jim Fixx and/or Katherine Switzer.

Who knew my engineering degree would come in handy for so much more than engineering??? I bet my parents are beaming with pride as we speak. And if they happen to be reading this, they should know they are not exempt from the quiz.

Peace. Love. Train.

1 comment:

  1. I loved the post...and yes...I am beaming with pride that the investment at Purdue did pay off.

    Nevertheless...I thought I'd get a pass on the quiz...even as a Father's Day gift!