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Publication Number: FHWA-RD-97-148

User Guidelines for Waste and Byproduct Materials in Pavement Construction


STEEL SLAG Material Description


Steel slag, a by-product of steel making, is produced during the separation of the molten steel from impurities in steel-making furnaces. The slag occurs as a molten liquid melt and is a complex solution of silicates and oxides that solidifies upon cooling.

Virtually all steel is now made in integrated steel plants using a version of the basic oxygen process or in specialty steel plants (mini-mills) using an electric arc furnace process. The open hearth furnace process is no longer used.

In the basic oxygen process, hot liquid blast furnace metal, scrap, and fluxes, which consist of lime (CaO) and dolomitic lime (CaO.MgO or "dolime"), are charged to a converter (furnace). A lance is lowered into the converter and high-pressure oxygen is injected. The oxygen combines with and removes the impurities in the charge. These impurities consist of carbon as gaseous carbon monoxide, and silicon, manganese, phosphorus and some iron as liquid oxides, which combine with lime and dolime to form the steel slag. At the end of the refining operation, the liquid steel is tapped (poured) into a ladle while the steel slag is retained in the vessel and subsequently tapped into a separate slag pot.

There are many grades of steel that can be produced, and the properties of the steel slag can change significantly with each grade. Grades of steel can be classified as high, medium, and low, depending on the carbon content of the steel. High-grade steels have high carbon content. To reduce the amount of carbon in the steel, greater oxygen levels are required in the steel-making process. This also requires the addition of increased levels of lime and dolime (flux) for the removal of impurities from the steel and increased slag formation.

There are several different types of steel slag produced during the steel-making process. These different types are referred to as furnace or tap slag, raker slag, synthetic or ladle slags, and pit or cleanout slag. Figure 18-1 presents a diagram of the general flow and production of different slags in a modern steel plant.

The steel slag produced during the primary stage of steel production is referred to as furnace slag or tap slag. This is the major source of steel slag aggregate. After being tapped from the furnace, the molten steel is transferred in a ladle for further refining to remove additional impurities still contained within the steel. This operation is called ladle refining because it is completed within the transfer ladle. During ladle refining, additional steel slags are generated by again adding fluxes to the ladle to melt. These slags are combined with any carryover of furnace slag and assist in absorbing deoxidation products (inclusions), heat insulation, and protection of ladle refractories. The steel slags produced at this stage of steel making are generally referred to as raker and ladle slags.


Figure 18-1. Overview of slag production in modern integrated steel plant.

Pit slag and clean out slag are other types of slag commonly found in steel-making operations. They usually consist of the steel slag that falls on the floor of the plant at various stages of operation, or slag that is removed from the ladle after tapping.

Because the ladle refining stage usually involves comparatively high flux additions, the properties of these synthetic slags are quite different from those of the furnace slag and are generally unsuitable for processing as steel slag aggregates. These different slags must be segregated from furnace slag to avoid contamination of the slag aggregate produced.

In addition to slag recovery, the liquid furnace slag and ladle slags are generally processed to recover the ferrous metals. This metals recovery operation (using magnetic separator on conveyor and/or crane electromagnet) is important to the steelmaker as the metals can then be reused within the steel plant as blast furnace feed material for the production of iron.

Additional information on steel slag aggregate use in the United States can be obtained from:

National Slag Association

808 North Fairfax Street

Arlington, Virginia 22314




It is estimated that between 7.0 and 7.5 million metric tons (7.7 to 8.3 million tons) of steel slag is used each year in the United States. The primary applications for steel slag in the United States are its use as a granular base or as an aggregate material in construction applications.


While most of the furnace slag is recycled for use as an aggregate, excess steel slag from other operations (raker, ladle, clean out, or pit slag) is usually sent to landfills for disposal.



Steel slag can normally be obtained from slag processors who collect the slag from steel-making facilities. Slag processors may handle a variety of materials such as steel slag, ladle slag, pit slag, and used refractory material to recover steel metallics. These materials must be source separated, and well-defined handling practices must be in place to avoid contamination of the steel slag aggregate. The slag processor must also be aware of the general aggregate requirements of the end user.

The processing of steel slags for metals recovery is not only important to remove excess steel at the market source for reuse at the steel plant, but is also important to facilitate the use of the nonmetallic steel slag as construction aggregate. This nonmetallic slag material can either be crushed and screened for aggregate use (steel slag aggregates), or sintered and recycled as flux material in the iron and steel furnaces.

Steel slag aggregates generally exhibit a propensity to expand. This is because of the presence of free lime and magnesium oxides that have not reacted with the silicate structures and that can hydrate and expand in humid environments. This potentially expansive nature (volume changes of up to 10 percent or more attributable to the hydration of calcium and magnesium oxides) could cause difficulties with products containing steel slag, and is one reason why steel slag aggregates are not suitable for use in Portland cement concrete or as compacted fill beneath concrete slabs.

Steel slag destined for use as an aggregate should be stockpiled outdoors for several months to expose the material to moisture from natural precipitation and/or application of water by spraying. The purpose of such storage (aging) is to allow potentially destructive hydration and its associated expansion to take place prior to use of the material in aggregate applications. There is a wide variation in the amount of time required for adequate exposure to the elements. Up to 18 months may be needed to hydrate the expansive oxides.



Asphalt Concrete Aggregate, Granular Base, and Embankment or Fill

The use of steel slag as an aggregate is considered a standard practice in many jurisdictions, with applications that include its use in granular base, embankments, engineered fill, highway shoulders, and hot mix asphalt pavement.

Prior to its use as a construction aggregate material, steel slag must be crushed and screened to meet the specified gradation requirements for the particular application. The slag processor may also be required to satisfy moisture content criteria (e.g., limit the amount of moisture in the steel slag aggregate prior to shipment to a hot mix asphalt plant) and to adopt material handling (processing and stockpiling) practices similar to those used in the conventional aggregates industry to avoid potential segregation. In addition, as previously noted, expansion due to hydration reactions should be addressed prior to use.



Physical Properties

Steel slag aggregates are highly angular in shape and have rough surface texture. They have high bulk specific gravity and moderate water absorption (less than 3 percent). Table 18-1 lists some typical physical properties of steel slag.

Table 18-1. Typical physical properties of steel slag.

Property Value
Specific Gravity > 3.2 - 3.6
Unit Weight, kg/m3 (lb/ft3) 1600 - 1920
(100 - 120)
Absorption up to 3%


Chemical Properties

The chemical composition of slag is usually expressed in terms of simple oxides calculated from elemental analysis determined by x-ray fluorescence. Table 18-2 lists the range of compounds present in steel slag from a typical base oxygen furnace. Virtually all steel slags fall within these chemical ranges but not all steel slags are suitable as aggregates. Of more importance is the mineralogical form of the slag, which is highly dependent on the rate of slag cooling in the steel-making process.

Table 18-2. Typical steel slag chemical composition.(4)

Constituent Composition (%)
CaO 40 - 52
SiO2 10 - 19
FeO 10 - 40
(70 - 80% FeO, 20 - 30% Fe2O3)
MnO 5 - 8
MgO 5 - 10
Al2O3 1 - 3
P2O5 0.5 - 1
S < 0.1
Metallic Fe 0.5 - 10

The cooling rate of steel slag is sufficiently low so that crystalline compounds are generally formed. The predominant compounds are dicalcium silicate, tricalcium silicate, dicalcium ferrite, merwinite, calcium aluminate, calcium-magnesium iron oxide, and some free lime and free magnesia (periclase). The relative proportions of these compounds depend on the steel-making practice and the steel slag cooling rate.

Free calcium and magnesium oxides are not completely consumed in the steel slag, and there is general agreement in the technical literature that the hydration of unslaked lime and magnesia in contact with moisture is largely responsible for the expansive nature of most steel slags.(1,2) The free lime hydrates rapidly and can cause large volume changes over a relatively short period of time (weeks), while magnesia hydrates much more slowly and contributes to long-term expansion that may take years to develop.

Steel slag is mildly alkaline, with a solution pH generally in the range of 8 to 10. However, the pH of leachate from steel slag can exceed 11, a level that can be corrosive to aluminum or galvanized steel pipes placed in direct contact with the slag.

Tufalike precipitates, resulting from the exposure of steel slag aggregates to both water and the atmosphere, have been reported in the literature. Tufa is a white, powdery precipitate that consists primarily of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). It occurs in nature and is usually found in water bodies. The tufa precipitates associated with steel slags are attributed to the leachate combining with atmospheric carbon dioxide. The free lime in steel slags can combine with water to produce calcium hydroxide (Ca(OH2)) solution. Upon exposure to atmospheric carbon dioxide, calcite (CaCO3) is precipitated in the form of surficial tufa and powdery sediment in surface water. Tufa precipitates have been reported to clog drainage paths in pavement systems.(5)

Mechanical Properties

Processed steel slag has favorable mechanical properties for aggregate use, including good abrasion resistance, good soundness characteristics, and high bearing strength. Table 18-3 lists some typical mechanical properties of steel slag.

Table 18-3. Typical mechanical properties of steel slag.(3)

Property Value
Los Angeles Abrasion (ASTM C131), % 20 - 25
Sodium Sulfate Soundness Loss (ASTM C88), % <12
Angle of Internal Friction 40° - 50°
Hardness (measured by Moh's scale of mineral hardness)* 6 - 7
California Bearing Ratio (CBR), % top size 19 mm (3/4 inch)** up to 300
* Hardness of dolomite measured on same scale is 3 to 4.
** Typical CBR value for crushed limestone is 100%.


Thermal Properties

Due to their high heat capacity, steel slag aggregates have been observed to retain heat considerably longer than conventional natural aggregates. The heat retention characteristics of steel slag aggregates can be advantageous in hot mix asphalt repair work in cold weather.



  1. JEGEL. Steel Slag Aggregates Use in Hot Mix Asphalt Concrete. Final Report, prepared by John Emery Geotechnical Engineering Limited for the Steelmaking Slag Technical Committee, April, 1993.

  2. Collins, R. J. and S. K. Ciesielski. Recycling and Use of Waste Materials and By-Products in Highway Construction, National Cooperative Highway Research Program Synthesis of Highway Practice 199, Transportation Research Board, Washington, DC, 1994.

  3. Noureldin, A. S., and R. S. McDaniel. "Evaluation of Steel Slag Asphalt Surface Mixtures," Presented at Transportation Research Board 69th Annual Meeting, Washington, DC, January, 1990.

  4. Emery, J. J. "Slag Utilization in Pavement Construction," Extending Aggregate Resources. ASTM Special Technical Publication 774, American Society for Testing and Materials, Washington, DC, 1982.

  5. Gupta, J. D., and W. A. Kneller. Precipitate Potential of Highway Subbase Aggregates. Report No. FHWA/OH-94/004, Prepared for the Ohio Department of Transportation, November, 1993.


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