UNITECR 2015: Focus on energy boosts refractory opportunities

By Liz Gyekye
Published: Friday, 18 September 2015

Discussions at UNITECR 2015 Vienna focused on the global decline in steel production, which has encouraged both steel and refractory producers to look to energy saving solutions, addressing both increased environmental requirements and the anticipated continued slow demand for steel.

As global steel production continues to decline, energy efficient products were under the spotlight at the 14th Unified International Technical Conference on Refractories (UNITECR) conference in Vienna, Austria this week.

Almatis’ global technical director of refractories, Andreas Buhr, told IM that refractories producers are increasingly focusing on manufacturing products that will reduce their customer’s carbon emissions and save energy.

The focus on energy efficiency is likely to continue to be a priority going forward with companies becoming more interested in comparing differences in energy losses between various refractory lining concepts.

"15 years ago it was only the lining life of the refractory that was focused on," Buhr told IM. "Now, the way you make energy losses or energy savings are part of the process and not just the lining’s lifespan."

Slovenia-based, monolithics specialist, Seven Refractories is also noticing a trend for optimising energy efficiencies and minimising resource usage and gas emissions.

In response to customer requirements in this area, the company's CEO, Erik Zobec, told IM that Seven Refractories has worked on developing on the most environmentally-friendly, alumina-based taphole clays available on the market.

"The overwhelmingly positive response from steel companies shows us that there is a huge interest and demand in the industry," Zobec said, adding that the company hopes to lead by example in terms of energy reduction in its production process.

"We not only strive to make our products more environmentally-friendly, but also our production. How can you be a green company if you do not do the job at your own home? We are working towards zero carbon emissions for our plant in Divaca, Slovenia," Zobec told IM.

The company was formed just five years ago. During its launch, the company centred its attention on the development of original products to set it apart from other competitors in the refractories space. 

Zobec told IM that Seven Refractories chose to focus on monolithics owing to their energy advantages over bricks.

"Number one, you do not need to fire them and you heat up your refractory materials within the process. To consume bricks you consume a lot of energy," Buhr explained.

"Second, we mainly sell our monolithics within a range of a couple of thousand kilometres. Essentially they are domestically used, whereas bricks take longer to produce and tend to be shipped over long distances," he added.

Zobec explained that the raw materials are sourced "as closely as possible".

He added: "Our monolithics are sold and shipped globally from the very close harbours of Koper and Trieste."

Steel production

As well as energy reductions, declining global steel production was greatly discussed at UNITECR this year.

Around 60-70% of the world’s refractories are used in steel making, while the rest are mostly consumed in the manufacturing of iron, cement, glass and non-ferrous metals.

According to the World Steel Association (worldsteel) demand for global steel between 2015-2016 is anticipated to remain slow. Hans-Jurgen Kerkhoff, president of the German Steel Federation, noted that these predictions are in line with current trends, as with the exception of India, steel output fell in all key markets.

Delegates at the UNITECR conference also heard how the market environment in the past half year has been characterised by an aggressive export strategy by Chinese producers as a result of a weak domestic market and high excess capacities.

This has led to high pressure on steel prices and, consequently, the profitability of manufacturers and further on suppliers. In many markets, anti-dumping duties are intensively discussed as a response to massively growing Chinese imports and have in some cases have already been introduced.

Despite a challenging steel market, Buhr said that the development of new high purity steel grades over the past few years is having a positive impact on refractory consumption.

He outlined that further opportunities were being created by an increased appetite for low impurity steel from the automobile sector. The increased awareness of energy losses and cost saving has also driven demand for better refractory lining concepts – an issue which was not a concern 20 years ago. 

Examples of steel technology movements are basic oxygen furnaces (BOF) replacing open hearth furnaces, the introduction of continuous casting and the growth of secondary metallurgy performed in steel ladles, Buhr said.

New opportunities

Separately, the opening of the Iranian economy to foreign investment and trade with the West was another hotly discussed topic.

Alteo’s director of marketing, Mike Rodgers, and Seven Refractories’ Zobec both agreed that US President Barack Obama’s lifting of trade sanctions against Iran will bring positive benefits to the refractories industry as it will open a market that was previously closed to the sector.

Refractories, engineered products or commodities?

Also debated at the conference was the question of whether refractories fell into the commodity bracket or into the engineered product category.

While Buhr argued that refractories were engineered products themselves, sales contracts in the industry are currently handled like commodities. 

"In relation to the steel industry, if they really want to get the best economic result for their plant then they must be careful not to easily go down the commodity route because they could be shooting themselves in the foot as they will not get the best solution," he said during a debate on the matter on the penultimate day of the event. 

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