Innovation, Diversification Are Key to Future Refractories Success

During the 1st World Refractories Congress (WRC), speakers provided a number of insights into the global refractories industry, including consumption trends and market challenges.

Worldwide, 65% of the annual refractories production is consumed by the steel industry. Photo courtesy of Saint-Gobain Ceramics and Plastics.
The 1st World Refractories Congress (WRC), organized by in collaboration with Industrial Minerals Information, Ltd. (IMIL), was held June 2-4, 2002, at the Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Center in Singapore. The theme of the meeting was “Weaving the Global Refractory Community.” There were 180 attendees from 29 countries, along with 21 exhibitors at the concurrent exhibition. During the Congress, speakers provided a number of insights into the global refractories industry, including consumption trends and market challenges.

Steel Industry–The Major Consumer of Refractories Worldwide

In an invited keynote address, M. Mukherjee, president and COO of Ispat International N.V, UK, provided perspectives from the steel industry. He said that the new corporate organizational model is flat, flexible and global. Managers are coaches, rather than bosses, and there is constant emphasis on improvement and innovation, with a greater diversity of products and services based on continuous, detailed assessments of the customers’ needs. The steel industry growth rate directly affects the refractories industry, so it is of interest that world steel production is projected to increase an estimated 1.4% per year to 2005. Electric arc furnace (EAF) steelmaking is forecast to continue to increase at the expense of basic oxygen furnace (BOF) steelmaking, and because EAFs use comparatively fewer refractories than BOFs, the demand (consumption rate) for refractories in the steel industry will continue to decrease below the current consumption rate in industrialized nations (i.e., 8-10 kg of refractory/ton of steel).

Mukherjee noted that with the consolidation of the refractories industry, three companies (RHI Group, Cookson and St. Gobain) now control 35% of the world market, with a disappearance of medium-sized companies. He challenged the refractories industry to meet the continuing need for value-added, longer-lasting and custom-designed refractories of consistent high quality.

Dr. Y. Weng, chairman of the Chinese Society of Metals, described many improvements and changes in the steel industry in China. The country’s production reached a record high of 153 million metric tons (mmt) in 2001 and will probably exceed 165 mmt in 2002. The number of steel companies in China has decreased from 1669 in 1994 to 269 in 2000. During that period, the number of steel plants producing more than 1 mmt per year has increased from 20 to 36. Plants stopped open-hearth steelmaking in 2001, which eliminates a major refractory consuming application from the marketplace. Energy savings and environmental protection are top priorities for the steel industry, with the objective of having clean, zero-waste plants. Plants need the refractories industry to provide high quality, improved and new refractories for cleaner, new generation steels.

Dr. K. Sugita (retired), Nippon Steel Corp., Japan, discussed the lessons learned during 50 years in refractories. As a refractories engineer, he quickly learned the great importance of refractories because they were the key to the successful implementation of a new steelmaking technology (BOF converters) in Japan. He guided research that led to the development and successful use of tar-bonded dolomite bricks and then graphite-containing dolomite bricks. He recognized the great importance of post-mortem analysis of used refractories to determine the wear mechanisms and to guide improvement and innovation, as well as the need for steel industry engineers to clearly communicate their needs and ideas to the refractory suppliers. Sugita said that the most promising refractories for the future could be composite materials containing oxide and non-oxide constituents.

A. Basu, Essar Steel Ltd., India described the improvements that have been achieved in a modern electric furnace steelmaking plant (2.4 mmt/year), which provided specific examples of the reduction in refractory usage. The refractory wall life, which was 298 heats in 1995, increased to 492 heats in 2002. Ladle lining life increased from 49 heats in 1995 to 129 heats in 2002. The company’s overall refractory consumption rate, which was 14.1 kg/ton in 1999, decreased to 8.8 kg/ton in 2002. And with more improvements in operating practices and refractories, Essar Steel expects to further lower its refractory consumption rate to 6.5 kg/ton.

Innovations such as this low-mass silicon carbide kiln furniture for use in the ceramic industry will play a key role in keeping the refractories industry viable in the future. Photo courtesy of Saint-Gobain Ceramics and Plastics and Bill Campbell Studios.

Information and Views from Other Industries

The ongoing decrease in refractory consumption has occurred in other industries as well as steel, based on refractory and operations changes, as follows:
  • Cement industry—1.2 kg/ton in 1970 to 0.6 kg/ton in 2000
  • Copper converter (Peru)—4 kg/ton in 1997 to 2 kg/ton in 2000
  • Glass industry—15 kg/ton in the 1950s to 5 kg/ton in 2000
The types of refractories consumed in the cement, aluminum, copper and glass industries have also shifted. For example, the use of Cr-free bricks in rotary cement kilns increased from 40% in 1980 to 97% in 1999, and the use of monolithic refractories will likely increase as the cement industry strives to reduce kiln downtime/maintenance. Further optimization of the refractory cost vs. performance relationship is continuing in the production of aluminum by electrolysis. Research on novel anodes and cathodes could potentially reduce the need for carbon baking furnaces and decrease this major market for refractories. Related to aluminum remelting furnaces, research has shown what is needed for less reactive and better performing refractories. And with the increasing use of oxy-fuel firing, the need for improved refractories—including more monolithic refractories—will also increase. The copper industry is still dependent on MgO-chrome bricks, but interest in Cr-free bricks has grown. This industry has been slow to adopt monolithic refractories, so good opportunities exist for product development leading to new business.

Dr. G. Goncalves of Magnesita, Brazil, gave a detailed review of refractory usage and needs in the cement industry, based on the company’s desire to increase kiln output and reduce production costs. Magnesita’s use of Brazilian magnesias (sintered and fused) and successful development of premium-grade magnesia-spinel refractories, including post-mortem studies to compare products, were discussed.

G. Evans, GlasRef Consulting, UK, discussed the current refractory situation in the glass industry. He indicated that sustained growth in production of flat glass and containers is expected until 2007, with an associated need for about $50 million in new refractories per year. The current life of flat glass furnaces is more than 10 years, with the weakest link being the sidewalls, where corrosion-resistant fusion cast blocks are used. So far, about 15% of U.S. glass furnaces are oxy-fuel fired, which causes accelerated wear of silica brick crowns. Spinel and fusion cast bricks are being considered to replace silica brick as the use of this firing technology increases.

Refractories Industry Views and Observations

An invited keynote address by S. Ushigome, CEO of TYK Corp., Japan, provided observations and experiences from a major international refractory manufacturer. The refractories industry is being affected by the big gap in supply and demand, along with the increasing worldwide availability of low-priced products, contributing to a deflationary spiral (price war). However, competition based on price is a dangerous practice, with many detrimental affects for the refractories industry and its customers, and it should be avoided. Instead, refractories companies must continue to innovate, diversify and globalize.

R. Mishra, managing director of Orind International Ltd., indicated that the main problems facing the refractories industry are 1) declining consumption/demand, 2) economic recession, 3) industry consolidation and 4) cost reduction by customers as a business strategy. But the refractories industry must overcome the uncertainty and doubt and continue to advance and grow despite the prevailing gloom. Companies should promote themselves as total solution providers to customers, seek out strategic partnerships and technical alliances, and do more outsourcing to reduce costs. The refractories industry must continue to play a key role in the growth of the world economy.

Prof. M. Rigaud of Ecole Polytechnique, Montreal, Canada, discussed the challenges for the refractories industry over the next 10 years. Worldwide, 65% of the annual refractories production is consumed by the steel industry. The world average rate of refractory consumption in the steel industry was 25 kg/ton of steel in 2001, with the best plants achieving 8-10 kg/ton; thus, the refractory consumption rate will continue to decrease. It is projected that the world demand for refractories will fall from 25 mmt to 20 mmt in 2010. Downsizing of refractory production is necessary, and the industry needs to change from providing commodities to providing services. Other concerns include increased outsourcing, globalization, more centralized purchasing (fewer orders, but bigger) and decreased refractory training. Rigaud expressed concern that the refractories industry may enter a period of “stagnation” of unknown duration and scope. Development opportunities include better refractories that don’t contaminate ultra-low carbon steels with carbon; new castables, including graphite-containing types; and improved or new steel-flow control devices.

Prof. X. Zhong of Zhengzhou University, China, reviewed the changing refractories scene during his 60 years in the refractories industry. He proposed that new, high-performance products will be needed as high-temperature manufacturing processes are changed (becoming more severe), including: oxide and non-oxide composites; free CaO-containing types that offer purification capabilities and good durability; and high-performance monolithics, such as free-flowing no-cement castables.

Author's Note

The WRC Proceedings can be obtained in either hard copy or CD-ROM by contacting online or by fax at (65) 6738-1572. The WRC talks were also recorded and are available on VHS or DVD. The 2nd WRC is slated for 2004 and will provide an independent forum that focuses on business-related topics and refractory trends/successes, which will be different than the technical and scientific focus of the Unified International Technical Conference on Refractories (UNITECR), held in odd-numbered years.

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