The Materials Processing Institute has reopened its hi-tech Normanton Steel Plant – allowing it to resume steelmaking production and support major research projects.

Unique in Europe, the Teesside-based facility produces steel and specialist alloys for new product development and process refinement, as well as generating valuable income through its specialist commercial smelting business.

It produces a range of precision steel products including carbon, alloy, and stainless steels, occupying an important niche in the market through its ability to supply smaller orders that are uneconomic for larger plants.

The Institute suspended operations in March due to the difficulties involved with the production team maintaining social distancing during operations.

Detailed risk assessments have been carried out and the staff undertook a four-week training process to implement safety procedures that allowed the plant to resume production safely.

The not-for-profit research and innovation centre, along with the Normanton Steel Plant, plays a pivotal role in several major research and development projects.

Chris McDonald, the Institute’s Chief Executive, said: “We are very much used to operating safely in a high-risk environment, working with molten steel and heavy machinery.

“Initially we realised our staff in the Normanton Plant were unable to carry out their traditional ways of working while maintaining social distancing, so we took the decision to suspend plant operations.

“We carried out risk assessments and established new working practices that allowed the plant to resume its valuable research role along with steel production for our clients.

“We are well used to dealing with risks in the workplace and the threat of coronavirus is just one more that must be overcome.”

Among the measures introduced is the creation of demarcation zones, changing the sequence of the industrial operation and introducing a ‘buddy system’ – splitting the staff into four teams of two – to reduce the possibility of infection. Staff are also required to wear additional PPE.

The plant, which also includes the UK’s only small electric arc furnace for the commercial production of steel ingots, is supported by a suite of testing and developing laboratories.

Electric arc technology will also play an increasingly important role in Britain’s transition to low carbon industries and the development of a circular economy, with its ability to melt down scrap steel and convert it into liquid steel, reducing the country’s reliance on highly polluting coal-fired blast furnaces.