Ceramic Industry

Refractories Review: Refractories Update 2001

February 1, 2001
Most people in the refractories industry have had the uncomfortable experience of trying to describe their work to a friend or acquaintance outside the ceramic industry, with the common response being a blank stare, rolled eyes or a quick change of subject. But, although refractories are virtually unknown to the general public, they are critically important materials because they enable all high temperature and/or chemical treatment processes to be accomplished efficiently, safely and profitably.

Today, the steel industry is still the major customer of the refractories industry, consuming 50-80% of the total annual refractory production, depending upon the country. But for a variety of reasons, one of which is the ongoing improvement of refractories, we have seen a continuing decline in the consumption of refractories by the steel industry. In 1970, the steel industry in Japan and the U.S. consumed 25-30 kg of refractory per ton of steel produced. Currently the steel industry in Japan and the U.S. uses about 10 kg of refractory per ton of steel produced. The steelmakers in other industrialized nations of the world have likewise had a similar decrease in refractory consumption.

Trends in Production

With the reduced demand for refractories by the steel industry, it is not surprising that U.S. refractory production has declined over the years, as shown in Figure 1. In 1999, refractory production was 3.54 million metric tons (mmt), which is 41% less than the highest annual production of 6 mmt in 1979.

The market value declined in 1998 despite a small increase (0.6%) in steel production. Historically the refractories production and market value usually react in synch with steel production, as happened in 1999 when steel production declined 1.3%. During the first half of 2000, there was a big increase in steel production (14.4%), with production up to 95% of capacity. This indicated the probability of the first year of greater than 100 mmt of steel production since 1981, along with a nice resulting increase in refractories demand. But since mid-year, steel production has declined, so it is uncertain what the final figure will be for 2000, although it should exceed the 1999 production of 96.1 mmt. And it has been predicted1 that U.S. steel production will increase 2% in 2001. So there are indications that the near term business potential for the refractories industry is generally positive, although long term the refractory consumption should continue to decline, but at a slower rate.

A continuing general trend in refractories usage worldwide, which is best illustrated by data from Japan2, is shown in Figure 2. The tonnage of monolithic refractories (castables, plastics, gunning/shotcasting mixes, etc.) produced in recent years now exceeds bricks/shapes. Based on continuing improvement of monolithic refractories and the installation practices and equipment, it is expected that this trend will continue.