Arkansas Business: With $3B New Mill, Big River Still Rising
By Kyle Massey
Mississippi County is already the champion steel-producing county in the United States, and is about to extend its lead.
Big River Steel in Osceola is firing up a $450 million electrical steel line early in the third quarter, making thin steel sheets for industrial motors and EV engines. It’s also continuing work on a new $3 billion plant, Big River 2, that owner U.S. Steel describes as one of the most advanced steel mills in the world.
The mammoth project is the biggest in the 120-year history of U.S. Steel, headquartered in Pittsburgh, the Steel City. Big River 2 is scheduled to be producing by the third quarter of 2024, just two years after construction began.
“BR2, the second mini-mill that we’re building next door, will make Big River Steel the most productive steel plant in all of North America,” said Daniel Brown, Big River’s chief operating officer and senior vice president of advanced technology steelmaking.
“This is the largest project in the state of Arkansas’ history,” he said. “But what really blows my mind is that Mississippi County in Arkansas is now the biggest steelmaking county in all the United States. It’s No. 1. So we’ve got a good footprint here.”
And it’s expanding.
The new electrical steel line, which could be operating within weeks, is on time and on budget, as is the larger mill project. Once the new mill is completed next year, Big River will have about 1,600 employees on site, up from about 900 now. And average pay, with incentives, is about $100,000 a year.
On Time, on Budget
“The new line is designed to provide state-of-the-art non-grain-oriented electrical steel for really two customer markets: the industrial market and the electric vehicle market,” Brown said. For electric vehicles, the steel is rolled to very thin gauges and will be used to make lightweight electric engines as the EV market grows.
“This was actually the first project announced when U.S. Steel acquired Big River Steel in mid-2021,” Brown said. “So we are two years into it, right on time and right on budget.”
Jim Bell, vice president of construction at U.S. Steel, said the electrical steel project comprises two major process lines. “One we called the reversing cold mill, where we reduce the flat rolled product, and then we have an anneal coating line that finishes out the non-grain-oriented product. The project was on a 24-month schedule, and we’ve had close to 1,000 contractors working on site to achieve the on-time and on-budget goal.”
Bell and his 28-member team at U.S. Steel serve as general contractors.
“They’re in charge of everything,” Brown said. “They design, engineer and construct everything in-house. When we acquired Big River Steel, we always talked about Jim and his team being part of the acquisition. We have the most experienced and talented engineering and construction group in the steel industry.”
Bell named some key contractors, including Lexicon Inc. of Little Rock, Systems Contracting of El Dorado, Stracener Brothers Construction of Blytheville and Thompson Construction of Greenbrier. Local companies Speakes Electric and Cache Valley Electric of Blytheville have also been involved.
“There’s probably about 30 or 40 total, ranging anywhere from two or three people up to about 250,” Bell said.
Lexicon CEO Patrick Schueck said his company is proud of its role in helping build the Mississippi County steel industry from scratch. It was instrumental in BR2, Big River Steel Phase 1, and the Nucor-Yamato and Nucor Steel Arkansas plants nearby.
“These projects are very important to our team and to the local and state economies,” Schueck said. “We are proud of the work and time our team has invested in BR2, and we are excited to see it join the thriving steel industry in northeast Arkansas and provide additional high-quality employment in the region.”
Steel for EV Engines
Bell said the new line will take coils of steel made on-site at Big River’s current pickle line and in-line tandem cold mill and put it through what Bell called a “reversing cold mill” to further thin the non-grain-oriented. “It can be made very, very thin, down to two-tenths of a millimeter,” Bell said.
“We’re targeting the industrial motor market,” Brown said. “This would be motors used on appliances, HVAC equipment, things like industrial applications. And the second market is the electrical vehicle market, where demand is taking off like crazy, as you know.”
Non-grain-oriented steel will be used in the engines of electric vehicles being tested at “all of the major automotive OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] around North America,” Brown said. “And I would add this new line has the capacity to make over 200,000 tons per year, and the customer demand and response has been incredible.”
Big River should have no problem selling all those tons, he predicted.
“There’s a shortage of non-grain-oriented steel,” Brown said. “And we already have sold our first coil off of this line.”
Lexicon Inc. helped build Big River Phase 1 and is now a major contractor on Big River 2. The company also worked on the Nucor and Nucor-Yamato projects nearby. (Lexicon Inc.)
Brown said two types of electrical steel supply the market: grain-oriented and non-grain-oriented. “It’s the molecular structure and chemistry properties” that make the difference, he said. “Grain-oriented steel goes into transformers, the infrastructure for power coming into charging stations, etc. Non-grain-oriented steel is for applications like industrial motors, motor efficiency and electrical vehicle efficiency.”
Brown praised Entergy Arkansas for providing bulk power from largely non-emitting sources. The utility and Lightsource BP are building a 2,100-acre solar power field next door to Big River.
“We have a great relationship with them,” he said. “Entergy currently supplies all the power for BRS and it will also supply all the electricity for BR2. The solar field will give us the ability to use solar power for up to 40% of our new plant’s electrical needs.”
Big River 2 will introduce new technologies in North America, Brown and Bell said. “This facility will have an ESP, which is an endless strip process for converting molten steel and casting it directly into hot-band coils. It’s a different way of actually making steel,” Brown said.
Its continuous and uninterrupted process fits seamlessly into Big River’s production and finishing lines under construction.
“It gives us a lot of value-added products within this whole 6 million-plus-ton footprint to sell for unique and growing applications,” Brown said. “There are solar industry applications, solar panels, things like that. And we’ll be able to make high-grade automotive steel, and we’ll be able to make steel specifications that nobody else can make off our hot mill that’s included there.”
Brown said U.S. Steel emphasizes a “best for all” philosophy.
“We’ll be making 6 million tons-plus of low-greenhouse-gas-emissions, sustainable steel, a green steel,” he said. “In addition, we’ll have the best integrated plants in North America.”
Brown said U.S. Steel’s Minnesota Iron Ore Operations will feed raw material to the Osceola mills. The company’s ore facilities on the Mesabi Iron Range near the Canadian border mine an iron-bearing rock called taconite and process it into about 22 million tons of iron ore pellets for steelmaking.
“This brings everything together and gives us a really, really big advantage in the market,” Brown said. “We have great technology, great equipment, and a workforce here that’s truly dynamic and outstanding. We’ve been able to go out and hire experienced employees for these projects, and we’ll continue to do that, and the people in the area around Mississippi County will get good-paying jobs within this footprint.”