Natural Resources and Environmental Management department chair, Dr. James Eflin, abandoned his busy workload to chaperone a trip to Nucor Steel in Crawfordsville, IN and Cayuga Generating Plant, a coal-fired power plant, in Cayuga, IN. The field trip was linked with the NREM 531 course, Energy and Mineral Resources.
The long day started with a two-and-a-half hour van ride to Crawfordsville for a three-hour tour of Nucor Steel, a leader in the cast sheet metal steel industry. Self-proclaimed as "The Little Steel Company that Could," Nucor utilized Electric Arc Furnace technology and a state-of-the-art German-engineered sheet-metal casting process in 1989 to catapult them from a little steel company to a leader in the industry.
The November 13 trip allowed the students to experience the process of making these sheets from beginning to end. Nucor rolled out the red carpet for these students with refreshments and a professional presentation on the history of Nucor. Following the presentation, students donned flamed-retardant jackets, hardhats, goggles and earplugs, and headed to the melt/cast building of the complex to commence the tour with what was the most exciting part of the process for a majority, if not all, of the students – the melting of scrap metal. This part of the process is the noisiest and most fiery, hence the thrill experienced by the students adventurous enough to partake in this optional trip.
Our guides, actual metal workers at the facility, continued the tour by showing us bits and pieces of the casting process, but since the actual casting is an industry secret, we were more or less skipped through to the cutting and rolling end of the sheet metal. Cutting and rolling consists of moving the metal along conveyor belts to exact the footage required by the customer, and then moving the red-hot steel along fast-moving rollers to thin it out to the desired gauge. They are then banded, marked and sent to the cold mill, where outer-layers of unnecessary chemicals are removed.
The sheet metal process is complex and workers are paid based on the quality and quantity of the steel produced. For them to even consider giving tours and accepting possible distraction for us curious students was generous and appreciated. The atmosphere created by the workers is one palpable with hard work and employment enjoyment. You can tell these hot metal men and women worked hard, played hard, and clearly enjoyed their jobs at the mini-mill. We were even able to meet a few of the workers employed by the mill at the exciting time of 1989 when Nucor was trying to bring online the new casting machine, which resulted in one death as they tried to exact the process.
After a quick stop for lunch and an hour more in the car, we arrived at Cayuga Generating Plant. Despite being one of the smaller coal-fired generating plants in the country (and possibly thanks to the flat landscape of Indiana), the plant was first spotted approximately 15 miles out from the destination. We were again greeted warmly and privileged with an introduction to the plant by employees. We likewise donned protective gear of hardhats, goggles and earplugs and split into two more-personalized groups for the tour. This considerably shorter tour consisted of a top-to-bottom look at the plant, traveling to the roof through the hot (approximately 90 – 120 degrees) plant. In the switchboard area, we were able to see the panel solely reserved for Nucor, which utilizes the electricity of a small city. The employees brag that they can tell when Nucor, as their biggest customer, is firing a new load of scrap metal in their electric arc furnace as the gauges go wild when this occurs. The highlight of the tour was the 5,000 horsepower engine that runs the plant, creating a loud wind tunnel (again, we're talking about adrenaline-hungry students).
The foresight of Cayuga is in realizing that policy will negate the need to become more environmentally friendly. Having added scrubbers to remove excess sulfur from the byproduct output, and taking a more industry ecological approach by closing the system of waste through the making of bricks from the toxic ash, wall boarding from gypsum pulled from the scrubbers, and sending excess steam to power the paper mill "across the street," Cayuga hopes to get a jump on the forthcoming changes in the industry in order to be competitive with renewable technologies.
The raw power of the entire day was exhausting, and although all of the students found the trip 100 percent worth it, people were excited to get home after 12 hours on the road to-and-from Nucor and Cayuga. It is the recommendation of this writer that the trip be an option for the class every year in the future.