The city of Salvador on the northeast coast of Brazil was the site of the 11th Unified International Technical Conference on Refractories (UNITECR ’09), October 13-16, 2009. Despite the global economic problems, attendance was good, with more than 600 attendees, including participants, exhibitors and companions from 37 countries. As usual, most attendees were from the host country, Brazil (with 129), followed by Germany (58). There were 46 attendees from the U.S. and five from Canada.

The theme of the conference was “Refractories in a Shifting Globalized World,” and the technical program included 203 presentations. The two most popular topics for papers were the “Iron and Steel Industry” (the major market for refractories worldwide) and “Castables and Monolithic Refractories,” which each accounted for about 30% of the papers presented. Similar to UNITECR ’07, “Refractory Raw Materials,” still an extremely important topic and major concern for the refractories industry, received special attention in a separate half-day session.

Iron & Steel Industry

The Opening Session included two speakers from the Gerdau Group, who provided views based on their status as a major steel producer and refractories user/buyer. They reported that, though the financial crisis might be over, challenges such as unemployment, small or negative growth, overcapacity of steel companies (especially China) and protectionism remain. It was mentioned that “there is no good that never ends and no evil that lasts forever.”

Prospects for steel and refractories appear to be improving, with a 28% increase in world steel production since December 2008. As a refractory user, Gerdau expects its suppliers to provide safe, accident-free products; assist in reducing costs and solving problems; act promptly; and share “best practice” information. The refractory manufacturers were reminded to prepare for a sudden increase in demand for refractories as users re-stock their inventory, and that the door is always open for new ideas and products that will provide cost savings.

Additional iron and steel-related topics included MgO-C bricks  with high thermomechanical resistance for the BOF, blast furnace taphole and hearth refractories, and graphite oxidation kinetics in MgO-C refractories, among others.

Raw Materials Issues

A panel of four refractory producers and four raw material suppliers commented on various issues, including the dependence of the world’s refractory producers on raw materials from China. The Chinese government has been taking action to preserve/protect their raw materials and protect their growing need for high-grade refractories, which is higher than most other industrialized nations because their refractory consumption rate is higher.

The price and availability of Chinese raw materials, such as bauxite, graphite, fused MgO, brown fused alumina, SiC, etc., are very critical issues. The world’s refractory producers have had to recognize the reality of the situation and take action to protect their supply of good quality raw materials by finding alternate sources, making formulation changes, conducting R&D on novel options, increasing recycling, and more. In addition, sea cargo freight rates and the availability of vessel cargo space were mentioned as key concerns.

The raw materials situation is very complex and has not been this volatile for 20 years. The refractories world was lured to Chinese raw materials in the 1980s by price and availability. This resulted in major changes in the global production and supply of competitive materials, and a dependence on China developed. As a result, the recent years’ big price increases, decreased quality and reduced availability of Chinese raw materials, which have been related to the country’s huge increase in steel production (and resulting domestic refractory demand) and the economic tsunami, have created big problems and withdrawal pains as difficult choices are being made.

It was noted, however, that many of the larger refractory companies have been proactive and have taken prompt action to assure control of their raw materials. The issue of Chinese raw materials-and their alternatives-will continue to be a major concern for the refractories industry.

Castables and Monolithics

Monolithic refractories were a popular topic, given the continuing material and equipment improvements and their successful use in many diverse applications. A novel casting technique was reported by Vesuvius for low- and ultralow-cement castables. The patent-pending method results in a 40-50% reduction in the water requirement, with associated property and performance improvements. Use as ladle impact pads has shown increased service life and more efficient emptying of steel. Several other uses include lances, blast furnace troughs and ladle well blocks.

Resco Products discussed a dust-suppressing lining method that yields a high-strength material that does not require air-curing and can be heated with an accelerated schedule, which allows operation/production to be started quicker than with conventional cast/vibrate and gunning methods. In addition, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has resulted in field trials of a composite-type alumina-SiC refractory that demonstrated better performance than traditional alumina refractories while reducing downtime for maintenance, improving process efficiency and reducing energy use. Additional monolithic-related topics included carbon-containing castables for steel ladles, the effect of nano-additives on the thermomechanical properties of alumina castables, and new gunite materials with improved performance that reduce process downtime.

Other Topics

Numerous papers dealt with novel and sophisticated aspects of refractories, including nano-engineering (carbon, nanotubes, titania, zirconia, alumina, spinel, microsilica, etc.), basic science, modeling and simulation (structure of submerged entry nozzle, coke oven heating, fracture of SiC plates, corrosion phenomena, drying of castables, etc.), and advanced testing. Additional sessions focused on refractories for other industrial applications, including non-ferrous metallurgy (Cu, Al), cement and lime, glass, petrochemicals, gasifiers, and incinerators.

Looking Ahead

The next UNITECR meeting will be organized and hosted by the Technical Association of Refractories–Japan (TARJ) at the Kyoto International Conference Center in Kyoto, Japan, October 30-November 2, 2011. For more information, e-mail

Any views or opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not represent those of Ceramic Industry, its staff, Editorial Advisory Board or BNP Media.

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