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Refractory review

Published by , Deputy Editor
World Cement,

World Cement (WC): What are the main challenges that refractories face today? How have these changed in recent years?

Stefan Rathausky (SR): Refractories are a critical component in clinker production. Despite the relatively limited impact on the production cost of for customers, purchasing decisions are very competitive. The price per ton of refractories is very often a purchasing decision criterion given cost pressure aspects. Factors such as product quality, service, supply security but also the quality of the installation are of critical importance too. These factors are key when it comes to total cost of ownership; however, this is a concept that is not yet widespread but is getting more and more attention.

Another aspect is the availability of raw materials, specifically regarding the influence of China. The availability and consistent quality of the raw materials play a decisive role, and given the measures applied by the Chinese government on environmental matters, the volatility in the market is very high. In this area, RHI Magnesita has a significant level of backward integration and offers security for our customers, supporting these industry needs with availability of consistent, high-quality, premium raw material. Specifically, the company owns one of the purest mines for high-grade magnesia, which is located in Brumado, Brazil.

Sustainability plays a key role in cement but also in refractories. The cement industry has worked on emission reduction, and RHI Magnesita solutions have been employed to assist in this target. Increasing alternative fuel ratios - especially in Europe and now also advancing in countries such as India and China - require high performance refractory materials. Buying the lowest cost/ton material will not yield results here, but the most suitable refractory will optimise the total cost of ownership, reducing the risk of unplanned kiln stoppages. This requires experience and capabilities not all suppliers provide to the same extent. And then there are many more ways RHI Magnesita can contribute to sustainability goals.

WC: How is refractory technology evolving to meet these challenges?

SR: We’re pushing innovations to ultimately increase the availability of the kiln. Resistance to chemical, thermal, and mechanical wear, tailored to the needs of each customer. We have a couple of very exciting technologies in the making. One new development is the spinosphere technology, which makes it possible to combine enhanced hot properties, like resistance against clinker melt infiltration, with high mechanical stress resistance – properties that have been mutually exclusive up to now.

Fast heat-up sol-bonded mixes are another example of how we are contributing to CO2 reduction: Fast heat-up means less energy consumption, high durability, and ultimately lower CO2 emissions. We’ve developed new recycling products, created significant intellectual property including the filing of patents, made major investments in the process and our plants, and will soon start to roll-out our product series based on RHI Magnesita’s sustain-ability technology. We’re aiming to play all of the keys on the innovation piano. It’s not just about the product innovation itself, but the combination of various factors in order to optimise the customer’s manufacturing process – entirely in line with the total cost of ownership approach. This includes the refractory material, but also the proper installation, the availability, and the monitoring in order to further optimise processes. And the future has already started: Sensors and data analysis will make it possible to optimise the entire manufacturing process and coordinate the refractory solutions more precisely in the future. These are not just empty words either. We acquired Agellis, a sensor manufacturer, in 2017 and continue to invest significantly in these technologies. In summary: our aim is to push the limits of what can be done with the product – but above all to develop complete solutions that take the entire production process for clinker into consideration.

WC: How significant is the role of R&D in the refractory sector?

SR: It is a very mixed picture for the industry as a whole. RHI Magnesita positions itself as a technology leader – seven research locations and hundreds of technical experts around the globe are testament to this. The Cement & Lime business unit has a worldwide presence, so experts can be close to their customers.

For us, R&D does not stop at product development, it’s also about process development, automation, and digitalisation. These are all future-oriented fields in which we are advancing innovation. Additionally, the company has established a technology advisory council with external experts so that we can optimally implement sustainability, sensor technology, and digitalisation solutions for customers.

WC: What role does the refractory sector play in promoting sustainability in the cement industry?

SR: Sustainability is close to our hearts at RHI Magnesita, not only because we are a public and London Stock Exchange-listed company. We aim to go beyond what is legally required. We have several new products and technologies in the pipeline to support our customers. Naturally, we’re aware that the cement industry has come under tremendous pressure, specifically in Europe, and we provide support with tangible measures. We have several very promising pilot projects related to reducing CO2 emissions. We’re currently making major investments in the development of recycling solutions – which is a very complex issue – and we hold a patent. Thanks to these research efforts and the experience of recent years, we are the first company that has something to offer in this area, all in the spirit of a circular economy. However, we are not just a component supplier, but also a global industrial company. RHI Magnesita entered into a partnership with the ECRA (European Cement Research Academy) in order to exchange experience and research in the field of carbon capture and storage technology.

One issue that is becoming increasingly important for the cement industry is reducing CO2 in its entire supply chain. In this regard, RHI Magnesita benefits from its global production network with more than 35 sites in over 16 countries. This enables transportation distances to be shortened and thus minimises CO2 emissions.

WC: Looking ahead, what challenges, or opportunities, do you see on the horizon for the refractory sector?

SR: The Cement & Lime business unit has had a very successful year in 2019. It has expanded its market leadership despite intense competition. At the same time, we’ve developed a new business model moving away from selling material towards providing solutions to customers, and the initial feedback has been positive; the total cost of ownership approach has been particularly well received. The challenge is to get all decision makers at the customer around the table, not many customers can easily answer the question today on total spend for material, installations, removal, and environmental costs. The sustainability manager, plant manager, production manager, the maintenance manager, and the procurement manager – we all need to work together more closely. The challenge is to get the customer to realise that it is not only about comparing the price per ton, it is about asking, “How much risk am I willing to assume to produce my clinker?” To put it another way: how can we best put our experience in clinker chemistry, sensor technology, and the circular economy to work for the benefit of customers?

The cement industry is in the midst of a major transition due to cost pressure, sustainability, and digitalisation. RHI Magnesita works closely with customers to help solve these challenges.

About the author

Stefan Rathausky has been Head of the Cement & Lime global business unit at RHI Magnesita, the worldwide market leader for refractory products and solutions, since 1 February 2019. Before assuming this position, the 42-year-old was responsible for the merger of RHI and Magnesita and led and built up functions such as communications, sustainability, public affairs, and raw material strategy.

Rathausky studied technical physics, business administration and engineering, and management in Vienna, Paris, and Lausanne. He gained experience with previous employers in the fields of sales, strategy, M&A, and restructuring.

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