Kerneos explores new markets for calcium aluminates

By Antonio Torrisi
Published: Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Kerneos opens new R&D centre in China; Products for mortars, sewers

France-based Kerneos told IM on the sidelines of the International Conference on Calcium Aluminates (ICCA) in Avignon that, due to slow refractories and construction markets, it is looking at new applications and continuing to develop new products.

Kerneos, which generated a turnover of Û340m ($466m*) in 2013, is the world leading producer of calcium aluminates cements (CAC) for the refractory, construction and other niche markets.

The company has been developing materials for new applications and has recently opened a second research and development (R&D) centre next to its production site in Taijin-Teda in China.

Chris Parr, vice president product development at Kerneos, told IM that the new centre in China will focus on the country’s domestic market specifically it will be developing products with specific focus on refractory sectors.

“It’s a mixture of local capability development and the ability to form a network with the other R&D centre in Lyon,” Parr told IM.

Kerneos was one of the sponsors of the conference, together with other CAC producers such as Spain-based Cementos Molins, Poland-based Gorka Cement, Croatia-based Calucem and Turkey-based Cimsa.

ICCA event

The event, which took place at the Palais de Papes in Avignon, France, in May, was the fourth of a sequence of events which started in 1991, and involved 200 scientists from industries and universities around the world.

A number of speakers discussed the use of models to understand chemistry and thermodynamics of CAC hydration.

“You see there has been quite a lot of development in the last few days,” Parr told IM. “One thing to have come out of the conference is a focus on trying to control these systems better through modelling,” he added.

New products and new markets

Kerneos has recently manufactured a series of new focused products, such as amorphous calcium aluminate for quick-hardening mortars and calcium magnesium aluminate (CMA-72) for refractory castables.

“I think the real question is what value we bring in,” Parr told IM.

“Kerneos introduced magnesia in a new product - the calcium magnesium aluminate - which can have a certain behaviour of the binder at room temperature and one at high temperature which results in a more durable system.”

Amorphous CAC, which can reaches setting times of 3-15 minutes, has been specifically designed for applications in ultra-fast hardening cements, which can be presently achieved only by using resin substitutes.

“There is also the possibility to develop new aluminates and introduce new things in the structure, whether it will be organic, with interesting behaviour between organic-mineral interfaces, or strontium, barium, zirconia, magnesia,” Parr told IM.

Participants also discussed other advanced applications such as root dentin material, phosphorescent glasses (when doped with rare earths), corrosion-resistant sewers and radiation absorption in the nuclear industry.

“The fact our name is Kerneos Aluminates Technologies, while in a previous life we have been spoken about in terms of calcium aluminates, gives an idea about how we are open to look at different solutions,” Parr said.

“We are always looking into new industries. Obviously the nuclear industry presents particular challenges, because here we are speaking about a lifetime which extends to ten of years, a multiple of what we are considering today,” Parr told IM.

Traditional markets and demand

CAC is traditionally used as a binder for the production of castables in refractories it is also used in construction as a self-levelling mortar tiles adhesive mortar, technical mortar and as a waterproof product, owing to its properties of quick-setting, anti-shrinkage compensation.

In the refractory market the majority of CAC products have an alumina (Al2O3) content between 60% and 70%, although in steel refractories this can lower to 40%-50% Al2O3. In construction, most CACs have an alumina content between 40% and 50%.

“The two markets have equal weight in terms of consumption,” Thierry Fradin, executive vice president sales and marketing at Kerneos, told IM.

“Demand in the refractory market in 2014 will be at the same levels of 2013 (...) We see now the market coming back slowly,” he added.

“In construction, the demand is more resilient, is more linked to renovation, especially in Europe,” Fradin said. The company expects demand will rise in the second half of this year.

“Today we have come back to a 2-3% year increase and there is not a single [geographic] area pulling the growth,” he said.

He told IM that Kerneos’ focus is now on India, where the company is planning to construct a CA plant as it believes the country could push future demand for CAC.

Cost and Resources

Bauxite is the main source of alumina for CAC and its supply security, which was at risk between 2006 and 2008, is no longer an issue for Kerneos, according to Fradin.

After acquiring a stake in the Greek red bauxite producer, Elmin, in 2012, and having set operations in China, which allow the company to achieve good visibility among white bauxite suppliers, Kerneos has now guaranteed long-term supply security, Fradin explained.

He also said that the main costs in CAC’s production are related to energy consumption and in environmental policies, which recently set tighter constraints on carbon emissions across the world economies, including China.

“We have made, and we still have to make, significant investments in our plants to be able to cope with these terms, and this is something impacting prices in the end,” Fradin said.

CAC is currently manufactured via a fusion and sintering processes of Al2O3 and lime. Alternative lower-energy production routes, which use spontaneous oxidation as spontaneous combustion, are only at laboratory scale.

“If you want to take those methods at the industrial scale, the costs will be several folds higher,” Parr told IM.

*Conversions made in May 2014