Aachen 2014: Refractories face evolutionary growth path to 2020

By Siobhan Lismore-Scott, Laura Syrett
Published: Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Steel makers target higher quality, lower volumes; Manufacturers urged to adapt to changing needs

The outlook for refractories consumption is positive until at least the end of the current decade, based on projected increases in steel, cement and glass output, delegates at the 57th International Colloquium on Refractories in Aachen, Germany, heard in September.

A reduction in specific consumption of refractories, particularly in the steel industry which is targeting 5kg/tonne of steel produced as a long-term goal, down from an average of 15kg/tonne today, will limit volume increases for these materials, however.

Jessica Roberts, senior analyst at Roskill Information Service, explained that there has been a global trend towards using less refractory material in the last 60 years, driven by a need to cut costs and improve efficiency.

While Japan’s steel industry has managed to cut specific consumption of refractories to around 7kg/tonne, making it the most efficient in the world ahead of North America and Germany, which both consume aroundÊ10kg/tonne in steel making, China remains well above the global average at around 20kg/tonne of steel produced.

“China was a relatively late entrant into the steel production market,” Roberts said, adding that the country has cut its use of refractories in steel from around 55kg/tonne in the 1980s and is continuing to reduce its requirements.

Another factor that will negatively impact future volume growth is the increasing desirability of wear resistant refractories with longer lifecycles.

Steel and cement kiln operators are demanding increasingly durable heat resistant materials for kilns and furnaces in order to reduce downtime and production interruptions incurred through maintenance stoppages.

According to Hartmut Wuthnow, manager at the German Institute for Refractories and Ceramics (DIFK), longevity of refractories is one of the most pressing issues facing refractories manufacturers.

“The main problem people come to us with is corrosion,” Wuthnow told IM.

“We have customers who come to us from all over the world to test their materials (...) Most want to know how they can make them last longer and perform better,” he added.

Quality and performance

A shift in the steel industry towards continuous casting as well as pressure from regulators to reduce sulphur emissions is helping to drive growing demand for higher quality refractories, Roskill’s Roberts said.

There is also a trend in favour of alternative fuels to power furnaces, which has resulted in greater variations in temperature, meaning that higher quality refractory linings are required to cope with the changeable operating conditions, she added.

This preference for superior performance is sharpening the focus on raw materials sourcing.

Dr Christoph Woehrmeyer, who manages aluminate technologies for Kerneos Inc., said that the very high purity bauxite and limestone Kerneos needs to make its high quality monolithic linings can only be sourced from China at present, adding that another type of block bauxite required by the company is only available in Greece and Turkey.

Kerneos has recently invested in a red bauxite facility in Greece to help meet some of its raw materials needs and has also opened treatment plants in France and China to upgrade bauxite fines, helping it to reduce its dependence on a single type of Chinese bauxite - although Woehrmeyer admitted that this is a costly alternative.

Berhard Goliasch, head of raw materials supply at RHI AG, said that the Austrian manufacturer had recently had to “blend up” magnesia sourced from China that failed to meet its quality expectations.

The company has purchased and developed a number of raw material facilities in recent years, including plants in Norway, Turkey, Italy and Ireland, as part of its backward integration strategy.

Roskill predicts that refractories demand will grow by 3.1% per year to 2020, and Goliasch said that Western producers will need to invest in captive raw materials sources to ensure that they have the supply security and quality to meet this growth.