ABB Arc Furnace Circuit Breaker Reduces Maintenance Costs

October 02, 2023 by Shannon Cuthrell

After one year of use, the ABB vacuum arc furnace circuit breaker has slashed maintenance and equipment costs for one steel plant in Canada. The next-gen breaker uses smart technology to increase efficiency and reliability through synchronization and continuous system monitoring.

A vacuum arc furnace circuit breaker produced by Swiss tech giant ABB is contributing to reduced maintenance costs for industrial users. One year after installing ABB’s VD4-AF1 system, a Canadian steel plant reported significant benefits, virtually eliminating maintenance procedures and related expenditures while also cutting emissions.


A Finkl Steel plant in Canada upgraded its old electrical equipment with ABB’s vacuum arc furnace circuit breaker.

A Finkl Steel plant in Canada upgraded its old electrical equipment with ABB’s vacuum arc furnace circuit breaker. Image used courtesy of ABB Electrification


Finkl Steel, a leading steel producer headquartered in Illinois, needed at least two spare breakers available at all times to support continuous operations at its plant in Sorel, Quebec. With two of the four circuit breakers nearing end-of-life, Finkl decided to upgrade its electrical cabinet with ABB’s specialized medium-voltage VD4-AF1. Engineers wanted a reliable and consistent replacement for the breakers, which represent a critical component of the steel production process.


Finkl Steel’s production facility in Quebec, Canada

Finkl Steel’s production facility in Quebec, Canada. Image used courtesy of ABB 


The VD4-AF1 system halves the number of required circuit breakers at the facility, slashing its carbon consumption and waste output. The maintenance-free solution helped the plant reduce equipment costs by 35 percent because it no longer needed to repair and replace old parts. It can support 150,000 operations, serving the site’s transformer switching needs. 

No one has touched the breaker system since it was installed a year ago, according to Phillipe Tremblay, a project engineer at Finkl Steel. Assuming the breakers operate for at least 10 years, the company will save money and time on a decade of no maintenance. The previous system required continuous inspections and repairs for equipment parts, adding downtime and racking up excess operating costs. 


Video used courtesy of ABB Electrification


VD4-AF1 Features and Specs

VD4-AF1 was released in 2021 as ABB’s debut medium-voltage circuit breaker with servomotor actuation, allowing precise drive control. The product eliminates inrush limiting reactors and resistances in applications rated up to 38 kV, 2500 A, and 31.5 kA, yielding further space and cost savings. 


VD4-AF1 is part of ABB’s portfolio of medium-voltage indoor circuit breakers.

VD4-AF1 is part of ABB’s portfolio of medium-voltage indoor circuit breakers. Image used courtesy of ABB


ABB claims the VD4-AF1 has five to 10 times higher endurance performance than incumbent products on the market. It can also increase the lifespan of transformers by more than 10 percent. 

VD4-AF1 offers advanced smart technology features, synchronizing the opening of the poles to eliminate overvoltage once it closes. Tremblay mentioned that this aspect is “mission critical” for the team since overvoltage can damage vital electrical equipment and transformers on the line. 

To prevent component failure and increase safety, VD4-AF1 features 24/7 predictive health indication and synchronizes with network voltage to control the precision of the current as it passes through the furnace. 


Technical specifications of ABB’s VD4-AF1 vacuum circuit breaker.

Technical specifications of ABB’s VD4-AF1 vacuum circuit breaker. Image used courtesy of ABB (Page 2)


ABB stated that the system significantly reduces transient recovery voltage (TRV) with a measurement element in the installation. 

Keven Ouellet, a field service engineer at ABB Electrification Service Canada, told EE Power the breaker was designed to “eliminate any TRV during the opening operation, which prevents damage to the transformer and reduces the cost and need of having a ‘snubber’—a suppression device for voltage transients in electrical systems—added when using vacuum breaker technology,” prolonging the life of the arc furnace transformer.


Electrification in the Steel Industry

Overall, the VD4-AF1 upgrade controls a critical part of the steel production process. The Sorel plant employs a 45-ton electric arc furnace (EAF) to custom-melt a range of carbon, mold, alloy, and tool steel grades. The 27-acre facility also produces tool steel, bars, and custom forgings with 5,000- and 2,000-ton presses. 

EAFs use high-power electrical currents to melt scrap and recycled steel. Powered by electricity, EAFs are increasingly popular as decarbonization trends spread to the steel industry, which accounts for about 7 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions worldwide. Many leading suppliers are shifting away from coal-based processes, namely blast furnace-basic oxygen furnace (BF-BOF) steelmaking. A recent report from Global Energy Monitor found that as of March 2023, 43 percent of planned operating capacity at steel plants will use EAF steelmaking based on gas and electricity, up from 33 percent in 2022. Still, the other 57 percent will use the traditional coal-based BF-BOF process. 

EAFs are smaller, more efficient, and have a lower CO2 footprint via recycled steel and electricity. According to an independent study by business intelligence firm CRU Group, the carbon intensity of EAF-produced steel is about 7 percent lower than traditional blast furnace steel. 

Finkl Steel, a business unit of Switzerland-headquartered Swiss Steel Group, is one of the world’s leading steel suppliers, processing more than 200,000 tons annually. The company is looking to electrify all of its operations, and the Sorel plant represents the first facility of the Swiss Steel Group capable of this goal, partially due to the availability of renewable electricity in Quebec.