Refractories are essential for all high-temperature industrial processes.
The lining of every single reactor, transport vessel or kiln uses a wide range of refractory products including bricks, monolithics and high-temperature insulation wool.
Refractories play the triple role of providing mechanical strength, protection against corrosion and thermal insulation. They are adapted to each specific application through fine-tuning and a careful choice of the different raw materials and their processing.
Innovative refractory products provide resource-efficient solutions to downstream industries and have been instrumental in the development of key breakthrough processes. And last but not least, refractories are also indispensable as kiln linings or physical support during the firing of all ceramic products.
Around 70% of refractories are sold to the steel industry.
Find out more at the World Steel Association website.
© 2018 by World Refractories Association. All rights reserved
What are refractory products?
Derived from the Latin word, ‘refractarius,’ meaning stubborn, refractories are technologically advanced heat resistant, ceramic materials that can withstand thermal and mechanical abuse and chemical corrosion at extremely high temperatures. They play a critical, yet often overlooked role in the daily operations of almost every primary sector of finished goods manufacturing. Supplied to customers in powders (monolithics), bricks, custom-shaped or functional products, refractories protect furnaces and other equipment from the inside by safely containing countless different materials, as they are melted, burned, shaped, or bonded.
Why is the refractory industry essential for our modern life?
Refractories are essential protectants for all heat-intensive production processes, including iron and steelmaking, cement production, glass, ceramics, aluminum, and nonferrous metals, paper and pulp, petrochemical processing, power production, and waste incineration. Without refractories, these industries and the products they produce would not exist.
What is the purpose of using refractories?
Refractory products protect the very expensive factories for producing the above metals and materials. Even more importantly, they provide the decisive safety feature so that workers and experts can work in our customer’s factories without being harmed or endangered by the enormous heat of the environment.
How are refractory products used?
In the steel industry, refractories are used as a “consumable” with single use up to usage of several days or a few weeks. Then they need to be changed otherwise continuous steel production must be stopped.
In most other industries refractories are mostly used when new plants are being constructed (in the investment process). In these plants, refractories are needed on an ongoing basis for repairs without which also these factories would come to a halt. So, a continuous supply of refractories is essential for the entire global operation of steel, cement, glass, metals, pulp, chemicals, waste and other plants.
For which industries are refractories essential and why?
Refractories will be found early in the production process when tracing the lifecycle of any of the products mentioned above. Consider the steel that is produced for a car or food can. One ton of steel requires approximately 10-15 kg of refractories to line the furnace in which it is produced. Without the protective material properties of refractories, the furnace could not contain the molten steel, rendering raw steel production impossible. Similarly, one ton of glass requires approximately four kg of refractories to line a furnace. Without it, glass could not be otherwise produced. Imagine a world even just without steel or glass: civilization as we know it would collapse.
What is the contribution of the refractory industry to value creation?
- Without refractories none of the products produced by our customer industries would be possible to make and global construction, transportation, packaging, machinery industries would come to a halt.
- The cost of refractory products lies below 3% and often below 1% of the cost of making these materials. But optimized usage and technological design of refractory products can influence up to 20% of our customer’s production cost positively.
- Refractories are non-toxic in its manufacturing and usage and can be recycled to over 98% in various long term, sustainable applications that spread from re-use as refractories itself or as building materials, processing aids, agricultural nutrient or others.
How big is the global refractory industry?
The refractories market size was over USD 30 Billion in 2018 and is expected to witness an annual growth of more than 4% between 2019 and 2025, according to company and industry reports. Strong product demand from aerospace, electrical, automotive, glass, cement industries is expected to drive refractories market size globally over the next five years.
Refractories are either considered consumable goods, which must be continually replaced (as in steel making) or investment goods, where the materials are replaced less frequently (as in glass furnaces or reformers for the energy industry). Although it is critical to manufacturing, refractories represent less than 3% of COGS in steel manufacturing and less than 1% in other applications.
How are refractories contributing to global health and safety, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Our customers in the steel, aluminum, copper, glass, chemicals, energy, waste management, and pulp & paper industries are directly responsible for supplying the primary materials used to produce critically important items during a global pandemic. A few examples include hospital beds, ambulances, respirators, face masks, thermometers, and other medical supplies, such as sterile tools, packaging, and equipment. Temporary hospital sites could not be constructed without cement, or aluminum poles to erect tents. The electrical power provided is in many cases generated through refractory consuming combustion processes.
Even our global food supply is dependent upon refractories. All the cans, bottles, plastics, and paper we use to package, preserve, and transport food are derived from manufacturing processes that rely on refractories.
How has the refractory industry taken health and safety measures to protect its employees/business partners from exposure to COVID-19 infection?
Even as we must continuously produce refractories because they are critical components in customers’ supply chains, the safety and well-being of industry employees is always the top priority. At all times, the goal of our members is to serve customers’ needs across all industries in the safest, most secure, and compliant manner possible.
Since the earliest concerns about the threat of COVID-19, WRA member companies around the globe have proactively instituted measures to help keep workers healthy and lessen the potential spread of the virus. This includes abiding by all recommendations and directives of the World Health Organization (WHO) and all national, regional, and local organizations that have issued guidelines in response to COVID-19.
WRA member companies in Europe, Asia, and the Americas report taking comprehensive and similar steps within their respective organizations. Besides strict compliance with the legal requirements of each country, these measures also closely reflect recommendations of the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19.
Examples of WRA members’ COVID-19 response include, but are not limited to:
Planning, Communication, and Working from Home
- Development and deployment of internal company COVID-19 Task Forces and/or preparedness and response plans
- Ongoing communications and frequent updates by company leaders to all employees regarding COVID-19 directives and plans
- Cancellation of business travel and events
- Work from home provisions for all employees who can perform their jobs remotely
- IT support for those working at home
Essential Plant Operations
- Encouragement of employees not to report to work if they feel ill and/or believe they may have COVID-19 symptoms; call to take temperature already at home
- Employees who are in contact with people affected by COVID-19 are to stay at home
- Single points of entry and daily temperature measurements at plant gates
- Limitations on visitors and provisions for minimal interaction during activities such as loading
- Strict guidelines for truck drivers
- Promotion and implementation of all hygiene and infection control best practices, (e.g., handwashing, sanitizing surfaces, etc.)
- Flex-shifts and/or hours for on-site employees, to ensure social distancing, and/or avoid peak transportation commuting
- Work positions kept at least two meters apart for production, warehouses, and other critical functions
- Avoidance of any meetings in groups , and at a two-meter distance, if necessary; encouragement to use digital alternatives for meetings
- Cleaning of sites, with common areas and entry points cleaned and disinfected up to every two hours
- Some companies have also instituted mandatory wearing of masks for all workers, weekly doctor visits or telemedicine for consultations and routine checks, and construction of physical barriers (such as plexiglass guards) at points of critical interaction
What is the infection risk at refractory plants? Can social distancing be practiced?
Given the intensive processes that occurs in the manufacture of refractories, workplace safety is, and always has been, a top priority for the industry. Plant workers are accustomed to adhering to the highest standards of industrial hygiene and safety and effectively wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).
By taking the COVID-19 related measures detailed above, the industry is conducting the necessary actions to minimize risk and practice social distancing, while still delivering the refractory products that are vital to the world’s critical infrastructures.
ATHOR (Advanced THermomechanical multiscale mOdelling of Refractory linings) is an innovative, collaborative and interdisciplinary project that brings together 15 early stage researchers, 7 academic beneficiaries and 8 private partners. This 4-year European Training Network (ETN) program started in October 2017 as a Marie-Sklodowska-Curie action (Innovative Training Network – ITN). The ATHOR network is firstly dedicated to train researchers in multi engineering required fields for a better understanding of thermomechanical behaviour of refractory linings used in I&S applications.
The main scientific objective of the ATHOR network is to adapt and develop the most advanced modelling strategies and experimental technologies to the field of refractory to be able to perform reliable computations and measurement in the temperature range of the applications of these materials. ATHOR targets the development of high-end engineering technologies in the fields of material’s science and numerical simulations to give a substantial contribution through the design of more robust and reliable refractory linings. Ultimately, it represents a reduction of the refractory costs, an increase of the equipment’s availability and an enhanced process control. In addition to the great energy savings that meets the industrial partner’s interests, the ATHOR project contributes also to tackling environmental issues.
ATHOR is taking part in the IAU-BBC series “Aiming Higher”. These short documentaries were developed in a cooperation between the International Association of Universities (IAU) and BBC StoryWorks with the objective to produce a series on higher education that illustrates how universities are playing a key role in addressing societal transformations.
The ATHOR project is supported by our members Imerys, RHI Mangesita and Saint Gobain.
© 2019 BBC StoryWorks