Ceramic Industry

Silicon Carbide Producers Face Continued Challenges

December 28, 2002
Chinese imports and difficult market conditions continue to pressure silicon carbide producers such as Saint-Gobain, but new materials offer potential for future growth.

Raw and processed silicon carbide. Photo courtesy of Saint-Gobain Ceramic Materials.
The North American market for silicon carbide is in the region of 250,000 metric tons per year (tpy), spread throughout the continent. Supply has undergone significant restructuring in recent years, with many crude production facilities closing or moving to lower cost locations. Saint-Gobain, which has silicon carbide production and processing facilities around the world and a global capacity of 170,000 tpy, has been at the forefront of this restructuring trend. In 2001, the company closed its 40,000 tpy facility in Shawinigan, Quebec, and refocused on production in Latin America. This followed the earlier closure of Treibacher Schleiffmittel’s furnace in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

These consolidations have left Exolon Co.’s Hennepin, Ill., plant as the only crude silicon carbide producer in North America.* However, Joe Menendez, president of Saint-Gobain’s Ceramic Materials division, is quick to point out that Saint-Gobain intends to remain a leading player in the North American market. “We have multiple avenues to bring silicon carbide into the continent,” he says.

Indeed, despite the Shawinigan closure, Saint-Gobain continues to be leading supplier of silicon carbide to North America through its operations at Worcester, Mass., as well as through a number of processors. Product now originates in Latin America at Saint-Gobain Materiais Ceramicos Ltds in Brazil, and in Venezuela at Saint-Gobain Materiales Ceramicos CA and Carburo del Caroni, where total production capacity is 95,000 tpy. The company also imports advanced ceramic grades from its plants in Europe.

While Saint-Gobain focuses on the refractory, abrasive and specialty markets, it also supplies metallurgical-grade products under its various SIKA brands. The company agreed to share some of its insights on the silicon carbide markets with Ceramic Industry readers.



The Impact of China

With low production costs and production capacity in the region of 450,000 tpy, Chinese silicon carbide has changed the market dynamics, especially for metallurgical grades, forcing Western producers to reassess how—or if—they want to compete. Those suppliers who have remained in the market have had to harness technological superiority and focus on higher quality grades. “The Chinese impact on silicon carbide is significant,” says Menendez. “Chinese producers are in an excess capacity situation and tend to continue to produce if they can make any kind of profit.”

The result is an abundance of low-cost Chinese material, which has increasingly forced markets to be led by price. This, in turn, reduces R&D investment, which is a real danger. “If Western producers are pushed out of the business, customers may benefit from lower prices in the short term, but they will not be able to get the long-term performance improvements that are critical to their competitiveness,” comments Menendez. While European countries have imposed safeguards to protect their native producers—such as import duties on low-purity SiC originating in China, Russia and the Ukraine—those in North America have not.

Low-grade markets have not been conceded to Chinese producers, but China is by far the leading source of imports. Between 1997-2000, China provided 82% of U.S. crude silicon carbide imports. China also supplied 57% of silicon carbide grain imports during this period, followed by Brazil (12%), Norway (10%) and Germany (6%). Although data from 2001 and 2002 were not yet available at the time this article was written, imports from Brazil and Venezuela were expected to increase.

Market Challenges

Silicon carbide is sold into refractory, abrasive, metallurgical and advanced ceramics applications. The first three groups are mature markets and are stable at best. Refractory and abrasive markets are the largest in terms of volume and value, but they have been on a slide since 1998 and 1999, and the market has shrunk.

Demand is tied to the steel and automotive industries, as well as to the economy in general. “Since September 11 [2001], the global economy has been quite weak,” comments Menendez. This state of affairs is exacerbated by the success of today’s advanced silicon carbide products. “As people can make longer lasting refractories, they need to buy less silicon carbide,” Menendez explains.

Additionally, technology changes in consuming industries means that less material is required. “The trend [in finishing applications] is to make pieces closer to their final shape, which means they need less finishing and therefore fewer abrasives,” says Menendez.

With low consumer confidence, inventory levels have been pared back and investment decisions put on hold. An uncertain situation in the Middle East continues to add to the market tepidness. 2002 saw markets at their lowest ebb, but producers conservatively believe they have bottomed out. “The crystal ball is not very clear,” says Menendez, “We do not plan on 2003 being a robust year, but we think there could be a slight increase in sales.”

New Materials

Bucking this trend are the advanced ceramics and semiconductor industries, which still enjoy an enormous growth potential despite recent weakness in some sectors. According to Menendez, Saint-Gobain is the global leader for this product group, although there are other producers. The company recently introduced its Fine Ceramic Powder (FCP), a fine-grained silicon carbide for reaction bonding. The product has already seen a great deal of success, which Menendez attributes to its having the highest strength, best oxidation resistance, maximum density, and highest thermal shock resistance in the market.

FCP is sold under Saint-Gobain’s SIKA-TECH brand and has already been used in aircraft and automobile components, ceramic armor, and military aircraft seats. Through R&D, the product is achieving more of silicon carbide’s theoretical properties at a relatively low cost compared with the more exotic, expensive materials it competes with, such as boron carbide and aluminium oxide.

According to Menendez, growth of this new product was restricted in the past due to the low volume of submicron sintered material available. However, this changed with the development of a silicon carbide-based diesel particulate filter (launched in Europe on Peugeot cars in 2002) by Ibiden DPF France. To supply these powders, Saint-Gobain constructed a new plant in Lillesand, Norway, which began operation in April 2002. The plant has subsequently become a high volume, low cost source of this material, taking the capacity question out of ceramic development. As a result, manufacturers of sintered silicon carbide can now pursue markets previously held by other, more expensive materials, and silicon carbide can be expected to continue its exciting growth trend.

Editor’s note: All units in this article are in metric tons.

References

*Although Exolon Co. is listed by the U.S. Geological Survey as the only North American crude silicon carbide producer, a number of other U.S. companies supply silicon carbide powders. For a list of silicon carbide suppliers, see the "Silicon Carbide" Materials Handbook entry on page 97 in Janaury's magazine, or visit Ceramic Industry's 2002-2003 Data Book & Buyers' Guide online at http://www.ceramicindustry.com.

For more information

For more information about Saint-Gobain Ceramic Materials, contact Joe Menendez at Les Miroirs, 18, Avenue d’Alsace, 92096 La D¿nse 3 Cedex, France; (33) 47-62-3763; e-mail Joseph.Menendez@saint-gobain.com; or visit http://www.ceramicmaterials.saint-gobain.com.