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Plants for the production of lead are generally referred to as lead smelters. Primary lead production begins with sintering. Concentrated lead ore is fed into a sintering machine with iron, silica, limestone fluxes, coke, soda ash, pyrite, zinc, caustics or pollution control particulates. Smelting uses suitable reducing substances that will combine with those oxidizing elements to free the metal. Reduction is the final, high-temperature step in smelting. It is here that the oxide becomes the elemental metal. A reducing environment (often provided by carbon monoxide in an air-starved furnace) pulls the final oxygen atoms from the raw metal.
Lead is usually smelted in a blast furnace using the carbon from the sintering machine to provide the heat source. As melting occurs, several layers form in the furnace. The molten lead layer sinks to the bottom of the furnace. A layer of the lightest elements, including arsenic and antimony, floats to the top and is referred to as the speiss. A "matte" layer also forms from the copper and metal sulfides. Finally, a layer of blast furnace slag, which contains mostly silicates, also forms. The speiss and the matte are usually sold to copper smelters where they are refined for copper processing. The slag is stored and partially recycled, if the metal content is sufficient.
The lead from the blast furnace, called lead bullion, then undergoes the drossing process. The bullion is agitated in kettles then cooled to 700-800 degrees. This process results in molten lead and dross. Dross refers to the lead oxides, copper, antimony and other elements that float to the top of the lead. Dross is usually skimmed off and sent to a dross furnace to recover the non-lead components which are sold to other metal manufactures. The Parkes process is used to separate silver or gold from lead.
Finally, the molten lead is refined. Pyrometallurgical methods are usually used to remove the remaining non-lead components of the mixture, for example the Betterton-Kroll process and the Betts electrolytic process. The non-lead metals are usually sold to other metal processing plants. The refined lead may be made into alloys or directly cast.
People who operate or work in such plants are also referred to as smelters.
Galena, the most common mineral of lead, is primarily lead sulfide (PbS). The sulfide is oxidized to a sulfite (PbSO3) which thermally decomposes into lead oxide and sulfur dioxide gas. (PbO and SO2) The sulfur dioxide (like the carbon dioxide in the example above) is expelled, and the lead oxide is reduced. Anglesite, Cerussite, Pyromorphite, Mimetite and Wulfenite are other lead ores.
Most of the lead produced comes from secondary sources. Lead scrap includes lead acetate batteries, cable coverings, pipes, sheets and lead coated, or terne bearing, metals. Solder, product waste and dross may also be recovered for its small lead content. Most secondary lead is used in batteries.
To recover lead from a battery, the battery is broken and the components are classified. The lead containing components are processed in blast furnaces for hard lead or rotary reverberatory furnaces for fine particles. The blast furnace is similar in structure to a cupola furnace used in iron foundries. The furnace is charged with slag, scrap iron, limestone, coke, oxides, dross, and reverberatory slag. The coke is used to melt and reduce the lead. Limestone reacts with impurities and floats to the top. This process also keeps the lead from oxidizing. The molten lead flows from the blast furnace into holding pots. Lead may be mixed with alloys, including antimony, tin, arsenic, copper and nickel. It is then cast into ingots.
Humans have been smelting lead for thousands of years, poisoning themselves in the process. Although lead poisoning is one of the oldest known work and environmental hazards, the modern understanding of the small amount of lead necessary to cause harm did not come about until the latter half of the 20th century. No safe threshold for lead exposure has been discovered—that is, there is no known amount of lead that is too small to cause the body harm.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization state that a blood lead level of 10 μg/dL or above is a cause for concern; however, lead may impair development and have harmful health effects even at lower levels, and there is no known safe exposure level. Authorities such as the American Academy of Pediatrics define lead poisoning as blood lead levels higher than 10 μg/dL.
Lead smelters with little pollution controls contribute to several environmental problems, especially raised blood lead levels in the surrounding population. The problem is particularly significant in many children who have grown up in the proximity to a lead smelter.
The earliest known cast lead beads were found in the Çatal Höyük site in Anatolia (Turkey), and dated from about 6500 BC, but the metal may have been known earlier. Ancient smelting was done using loads of lead ore and charcoal in outdoor hearths and furnaces.
Although lead is a common metal, its discovery had relatively little impact in the ancient world. It is too soft to be used for weapons (except possibly as sling projectiles) or for structural elements. However, being easy to cast and shape, it came to be extensively used in the classical world of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome for piping and storage of water. It was also used as a mortar in stone buildings, and as a writing material. Smeltmills were water-powered mills used to smelt lead or other metals. The roman lead smelting has led to evidence of global pollution. Greenland ice cores from 500 BCE to 300 CE show measurably elevated lead content in the atmosphere.
In the USA there are 400 forgotten lead smelting firms that operated in the 1930s to 1960s and may have deposited dangerous levels of lead contamination in nearby soil.