Innovation and new markets heat up demand for technical ceramics

By Antonio Torrisi
Published: Saturday, 24 January 2015

Specific consumption of refractories in the steel, glass and cement industries has been steadily declining worldwide, while the market has increasingly shifted towards higher quality products. Antonio Torrisi explores how advanced technical ceramics can benefit from new market trends globally.

The technical ceramics industry is continuing to see demand growth for value-added products in niche markets, particularly in developed economies, where refractory producers as well as the steel, nonferrous metal and cement industries are shifting towards high quality, speciality products.

The refractories industry in Europe has experienced weak demand in the last two years, particularly for traditional magnesite-based bricks and monolithics, owing to a slowdown in construction activity, which suppressed steel and cement consumption, following the global economic crisis in 2008.

World-leading refractory producer RHI AG said last year that a challenging market environment in the glass industry impacted its turnover in the first nine months of 2014 - with its profits halving in H1 2014 - due to weak demand in Europe, the CIS and the Middle East. 

Factors such as global overcapacity in the glass industry - particularly in the flat glass segment - and low metal prices have eaten into demand for refractories, particularly in Europe, where the company is planning to close a glass facility and scale back manufacturing operations in the next two years.

In the last four years, refractory consumption in European Union (EU) countries dropped by 11%, with the Czech Republic notably posting a 20% decrease in production, while production in China rose by 14%.

According to Czech Republic-based refractory producer, REFRASIL s.r.o., production of low-quality refractory materials - such as fireclay, silica and magnesite with a high content of ferric impurities - has been falling in the last four years, while production of high-quality ceramics has been rising.

"Aluminosilica materials production has been decreasing, while basic materials, with high utility values, have been pushing their way up more and more," the company said in a report published in June 2014.

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Specific refractory consumption

The development of high quality products in the refractories industry, especially among US and EU-based producers, has been driven by a steady decrease in specific refractory consumption by the steel industry, which accounts for 65-75% of global refractories consumption.

Average specific consumption has fallen from 50kg/tonne of steel in the 1950s to 15kg/tonne of steel in 2010, with consumption as low as 7kg/tonne of steel in Japan (see Figure 1), and averaging about 22kg/tonne of steel in China.

According to independent refractories consultant Charles Semler, quality issues resulting from contact between refractories and molten steel in steel production has fuelled demand for improved refractory products, which create fewer defects in the steel and increase its purity.

China is now the world’s leading refractories manufacturer with, 28.2m tonnes of refractories produced in 2013, accounting for more than 66% of global production, according to statistics from the Association of China Refractories Industry (ACRI).

Hongxia Li, from Sinosteel Luoyong Institute of Refractories Research, said at 10th India Refractories Congress (IREFCON) in January 2014 that the Chinese refractories industry has made unprecedented advances over the last 30 years, but needs to move towards better allocation of raw materials, environmentally friendly and energy-saving products.

It also needs to increase the use of monolithics as a proportion of refractories consumed from 40% currently to 70%, and up its use of recycled materials to 70%.

The refractories industry has gradually moved towards the development of new products with improved quality and purity, including synthetic materials, low silica magnesia-chrome (MgO-Cr2O3) bricks, solid solution bonded alumina-chromite (Al2O3-Cr2O3) bricks, magnesia-carbon/graphite (MgO-C) products, zirconia (ZrO2)-added products, MgO- Al2O3 spinels and high-tech castables with steel/organic fibres.

Meanwhile, the market has increasingly shifted from bricks towards unshaped monolithics, which accounted for the 68% if the total market in Japan in 2012.

Refractories producers have been conducting studies to improve control of the microstructure of products to enhance their chemical, physical and mechanical properties.

New research is underway to develop modified structures and pre-reacted spinels, nanopowder rods, wires and fibres, flexible, functional and monolithic refractories, as well as high-tech engineered ceramics, according to Semler.

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Market trends for advanced ceramics

Several technical ceramic products have seen growth or stability in their respective markets worldwide. A positive impact has came from the expansion of the industry globally, which boosted demand for technical refractory materials in kilns for the production of tiles and sanitaryware.

According to recent data from the Italian Association of Manufacturers of Machinery for Ceramics (ACIMAC), tiles production reached 11.9bn m2 in 2013, up 6.4% year-on-year (y-o-y), with stable demand during 2014.

"If international events do not escalate and there is new stabilisation, we believe the market will grow more in 2015," Fabio Tarozzi, ACIMAC’s president, said at Tecnargilla 2014 in Rimini, Italy, in September 2014.

Refractories producers told IM at the side lines of Tecnargilla that they expect growth in the production of synthetic minerals used in the ceramics industry. 

Synthetic mullite

Italy-based Refrattari Speciali told IM that they are seeing business growth in their mullite and cordierite-based refractory products for the ceramic kilns market.

Demand is high outside Europe - particularly in Turkey, Iran and Indonesia - and moderate in the US, while there is growing consumption in India, despite strong competition among local producers, the company told IM.

Johannes Heckmann, member of the board of directors at German producer Nabaltec AG, told IM that synthetic mullite typically has a niche market, with global annual consumption of 20,000 tpa, compared with 2m tpa for speciality alumina. 

The mineral, which accounts for 10% of the company’s business, is marketed at an average price of €1,000/tonne ($1,184/tonne*), but varies according to grade and grain size.

"The market for technical ceramics is quite stable. There are new opportunities in terms of new value-added products and high-performance ceramics," Heckmann told IM.

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Cordierite and MgO-Al2O3-based refractories

Portugal-based Ceramifor, which produces cordierite, a magnesium-iron-aluminium cyclosilicate, and silicon carbide (SiC)-based refractory bricks and kilns, told IM it has seen growth in demand for its refractory products in 2013, on the back of an expanding ceramic tiles market across Europe.

The company was awarded a contract to supply two tunnel kilns and one shuttle kiln for sanitaryware production in Algeria, which is part of a modernisation project to increase equipment performance and efficiency. 

Ceramifor’s daily production exceeds 2,000-2,500 pieces for the tunnel kilns, with a capacity over 100 m3 for the shuttle kiln. 

Egypt-based Asfour Mining and Refractories also told IM that the ceramics market is steadily growing in the Middle East and North Africa region, particularly in Algeria, driving up demand for refractories in ceramics kilns. The company produces refractory materials for kilns in the steel, ceramics and cement industries, with a total production capacity of 90,000 tpa.

Russia’s largest refractories producer, Magnezit Group, recently launched a series of new refractory bricks for the glass industry, marketed under the brand of MZ-84, with improved thermophysical characteristics for lining walls of glass-melting furnaces. 

The company, which also launched a zirconium silicate-based thixotropic refractory castable for lining steel ladles in June 2014, installed a new multi-hearth furnace with a production capacity of 100,000 tpa of periclase clinkers at its Satka plant in Russia, the following July.

Zirconia

Also in 2014, UK-based technical ceramics producer, Magma Ceramics & Catalysts, launched a new series of zirconia crucibles, which improve yields and reduce processing costs in the superalloy industry, according to the company. 

"Zirconia crucibles offer superior resistance to alloy wettability and excellent thermal cycling properties," Tim Hazlehurst, Magma’s business development manager, told IM.

Magma Ceramics, which entered a joint venture (JV) with fellow UK-based refractories manufacturer Morgan Advanced Materials in March 2014, said that it planned to market its new zirconia crucible around the world through strategic alliances with its major customers. 

The zirconia market has grown in the last three years, reaching global production of 520,000 tpa in 2014, resulting from high demand for zirconium carbonate in automotive catalysts and ceramic pigments, which use fused zirconia in the digital inkjet printing technology for ceramic tiles, according to consulting firm Roskill Information Service.

New potential applications for zirconia are offered by the dental millings industry, which uses zirconium crowns and bridges, 

due to the mineral’s strength which allows it to withstand the biting pressure of the front teeth as well as the grinding of back teeth. Minnesota Dental Millings has developed 

a zirconia crown which resembles natural teeth, due to its ability to reflect light in the same way.

Other potentially significant uses of zirconia-based ceramics are in fuel cells and 3D printing technology. Researchers from Northwestern University in Boston, US, have developed a novel process to produce ceramic materials by 3D printing. They manufactured a yttrium-stabilised zirconia (YSZ) material to be used in advanced solid fuel cells to convert gas into electricity.

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Silicon carbide 

SiC is one of the products with high growth prospects, according to technical ceramics producers. World-leading producer Refratechnik Group said that SiC is a particularly interesting area of focus in its research and development (R&D) department, which is looking to expand current applications and generate new market opportunities.

SiC is widely used in the abrasive industry, which began to show signs of improvement in the second half of 2014, after a slowdown in early H1, compared with 2013. 

India-based abrasive and global refractories supplier Carborundum Universal Ltd (CUMI), which is a major producer of SiC from its 65,000 tpa plant in Russia, reported in September 2014 that "improved wear and metallised business drove growth in industrial ceramics".

Elsewhere in Asia, Chinese abrasive producers, including Henan Yuxin Abrasives Co. and Qinyang Sanhui Refractory Material Co. launched new SiC abrasive products towards the end of 2014, while France-based Saint Gobain expanded its abrasive assets in Turkey with the acquisition of Atlas Zampara in October last year.

According to a report published in December 2014 by Transparency Market Research, the global abrasives market was valued at $35.2m in 2012 and is expected to reach $1.4bn by 2019, with a 5.5% compound annual growth rate (CAGR). 

Factors such as stringent government restrictions on the use of silica-based abrasives and volatile raw material prices might restrain the market growth, the report said.

Global demand for abrasives in 2012 was estimated to be about 13.9m tonnes, driven by expanding automotive and medical devices markets. The bonded abrasives segment, which accounts for the largest share of the market, is forecast to reach a value of $16.7m worldwide in 2019, with a 4.5% CAGR, according to Transparency Market Research.

SiC has found new market opportunities in technological applications such as liquid membranes. US-headquartered LiqTech International saw a 12% increase in sales of its SiC-based membrane technologies for the removal of heavy toxic metals in wastewater treatment in the third quarter of 2014.

But the largest growth for SiC is offered by the semiconductors and power electronics markets, in which the product is gradually substituting traditional silicon metal-based semiconductors, as it offers low power loss during on/off switching, enabling more efficient current flow in hybrid (HEVs) and electric vehicles (EVs), even at high frequencies.

In May last year, Japanese car manufacturers Toyota Motors and Denso developed a SiC-based power semiconductor for applications in automotive power control units (PCUs). According to the two companies, the new material will improve efficiency by 10% and reduce PCU size by 80%.

In July 2014, General Electric announced a $500m project in collaboration with the New York State government to develop low-cost SiC wafers to be used in smaller, lighter and more powerful semiconductors for computers, solar power and aviation.

According to a report published by RNR Market Research in September 2014, the SiC-based semiconductor market is expected to grow at a 42% CAGR to 2020, with Asia-Pacific countries driving the growth at a 43.5% CAGR, accounting for 36.5% of the total market.

Japanese company Showa Denko increased its production of SiC wafers from 400 units per month to 1,500 units per month, for applications in power devices in September 2014. Sweden-based Norstel AB started the supply of SiC wafers to British company Anvil Semiconductors in October 2014 and UK-based Glenrothes Raytheon started the production of SiC metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistors (MOSFETs) for EVs and HEVs in November. 

A report released in December 2014 by MarketsandMarkets projected the SiC-based ceramic matrix composites market to reach a value of $1.2bn by 2019, due to rapidly growing demand in the aerospace, automotive, energy and power industries, where they are used owing to their fracture toughness and high temperature, wear and corrosion resistance. India is the fastest growing market, with an 18.3% CAGR forecast between 2014 and 2019. Growth in the North American market is forecast at a 13.5% CAGR.

China’s ceramic industry production 2010-2014

Year

Tableware (bn pieces)

Sanitaryware (m pieces)

Ceramic tiles (bn m2)

2010

27.0

177

7.58

2011

29.8

206

9

2012

33.8

199

9.2

2013

31

206

9.69

2014 (estimate)

31

210

10

 

Source: EH Consultancy 


Speciality alumina

Alumina-based spinels and speciality alumina products are also seeing increasing growth opportunities in several markets.

Nabaltec told IM that there are growth opportunities for Al2O3 and MgO-Al2O3 spinels as steel producers in Europe and the US are shifting to higher quality refractories.

"Although Asia offers higher potential for increasing consumption of Al2O3 in this field, we remain confident that Europe will still be an important market," Heckmann told IM.

The proppants market in Asia, the US and the Middle East also offer growth prospects for calcined bauxite and kaolin as sources of Al2O3. US-based Carbo Ceramics Inc. introduced an alumina-based ceramic proppant, named Kryptosphere, which is able to work at 20,000 psi to maximise and sustain hydrocarbon flow in fracking wells. 

In China, oilfield technology supplier, Anton Oilfield Services Group (Antonoil), started ceramic proppants production in China in April 2014, with first-phase production capacity expected to be 50,000 tpa. 

Canadian junior First Bauxite is planning to develop its Bonasika refractory-grade bauxite project in Guyana, targeting the production of 150,000 tpa bauxite both for refractory and proppant markets.

Meanwhile, high-density alumina (HDA) grinding balls have seen steadily increasing demand in the expanding ceramics industry, especially among tiles and sanitaryware producers. 

Spain-based global supplier, Hito Technical Industries Srl, told IM at Tecnargilla 2014 that global demand for HDA balls rose from 50,000 tpa in the mid-1990s to 150,000 tpa in 2014, with Europe, Asia, North and South America notably recording higher demand.

Speciality alumina has seen increasing consumption in the rapidly expanding fibreglass market. Ukraine-based kaolin producer Prosco Resources told IM that there is an increasing need for the mineral in the Russian fibreglass industry, which is expanding at a rapid pace. Kaolin is an aluminosilicate with a content of 37-39.5% Al2O3, which makes it an important source of alumina. 

Canadian junior Hudson Resources told IM that it is mainly targeting the e-glass market - now the most common type of glass fibre used to make fibreglass - to supply speciality alumina from its White Mountain anorthosite project in Greenland.

"The e-glass market appears to be growing at [a CAGR of] 5-7% per year and we believe that anorthosite can contribute between 25% and 40% of the batch that goes to the furnace," Jamie Tuer, Hudson’s president, told IM.

"We believe that global production of e-glass is roughly 5m tpa. Therefore, the potential market for anorthosite in e-glass is between 1.25-2m tpa," he added.

Tuer told IM that the company targeted 200,000 tpa in its internal study for the project, but expects to exceed 300,000 tpa within three years of entering production.

"E-glass is not generally made using alumina as a source of aluminium for the glass," he said, adding that demand is distributed as 25% in Europe, 25% in North America and 50% in Asia.

According to Qianzhan Business Information Co., global fibreglass production rose from 4.7m tonnes in 2010 to 5.3m tonnes in 2012, with China accounting for about 50% of global production. 

Fibreglass finds major applications in construction, automobiles, infrastructure and increasing demand in China is expected to play a crucial role in boosting overall growth in the market, according to market research firm, Researchmoz Global.

High-purity alumina (HPA) has also seen growth opportunities in high-tech industries, including smartphones, light emitting diodes (LEDs), semiconductors and phosphor-based applications. 

According to leading speciality alumina producer, Almatis, the market for speciality alumina materials is characterised by positive long-term growth prospects, owing to the material’s versatility and to growing demand for advanced refractory applications.

A report from TechNavio Research, published in April 2014, forecast HPA production to grow from 19,040 tpa in 2014 to 48,230 tpa in 2018, at a 48% CAGR.

According to TechNavio, the market is expected to see significant growth especially in Asia-Pacific, which accounts for 70% of global HPA consumption, thanks to its hubs of high-tech companies. Europe, Africa and the Middle East accounted for 16% of global demand, with North and South America making up the remaining 14%.

Demand is largely being driven by the growing market for artificial sapphire substrates for LEDs, as these products have high thermal stability, chemical resistance and mechanical strength. This segment accounted for 55% of HPA global demand in 2013, according to TechNavio, which forecast HPA consumption by LEDs to reach 31,810 tpa by 2018, growing at a 32% CAGR (see Figure 2).

HPA is also used in semiconductor wafer processing equipment as it provides a high level of plasma corrosion resistance and high-bending strength. 

As the semiconductor industry is expected to grow steadily in the next few years, this will also boost demand for HPA in this market, which accounts for 22% of total HPA consumption, figures from TechNavio show.

HPA consumption in semiconductors was estimated to be 3,100 tpa in 2013 and is expected to reach 4,210 tpa by 2018, growing at a 6.3% CAGR. 

Phosphor-based applications and lithium-ion batteries are two other markets which offer potential growth in HPA demand.

New projects under development by Australian junior Altech Chemicals and Canada-based Orbite Aluminae also aim to produce HPA at low cost from aluminous clays.

Pursuing innovation

As major refractories consuming markets like China and India move towards advanced refractory products, there is an opportunity for technical ceramics to enter these markets. 

Refractories producers are consequently focusing on R&D and are opening new technical centres in Asia-Pacific to be close to prospective growth markets.

In 2013-2014, Almatis set up a new state-of-the-art calcined alumina plant in Qingdao, China, while developing technical support labs and R&D centres in India, China and the US. 

Calcium aluminate technologies world-leader, Kerneos Inc., meanwhile, opened an R&D centre in Tianjin-Teda province, China, in May 2014, to serve customers around the globe with innovative products based on aluminate technologies. The French company is also planning to commission a new calcium aluminate cement plant in India, with an initial capacity of 30,000 tpa, by the end of 2016.

A research project from the Technische Universitaet Ilmenau in Germany urged the refractories industry to develop a roadmap to support advanced research and product innovation.

Major emphasis is being placed on the optimisation of product formulations in terms of porosity and grain size, as well as in the development of alternative materials compositions and requirements through appropriate mixing and slurring technologies.

An illustrative case was given by the recent design by Czech Republic-based iron and steel producer Trinecke Zelezarny, which has developed a new concept in lining focusing on the use of multi-components - applying Al2O3-SiC-C, andalusite and bauxite bricks in the slag line of pig iron transport ladles - to increase average lining life of kilns.

Coatings and multilayer structures are gaining increasing relevance, especially to improve thermal shock and corrosion resistance of refractories, and joining different ceramics and metals is another future research field of interest, according to Technische Universitaet Ilmenau.

This may extend the scope of new refractory materials and will meet the increasing demand for various products and components that can be adjusted to specific operating conditions in the steel, glass and cement industry.

*Conversion made January 2015