What Are Refractories?

Refractories are ceramic materials designed to withstand the very high temperatures (in excess of 1,000°F [538°C]) encountered in modern manufacturing. More heat-resistant than metals, they are used to line the hot surfaces found inside many industrial processes.

In addition to being resistant to thermal stress and other physical phenomena induced by heat, refractories can withstand physical wear and corrosion caused by chemical agents. Thus, they are essential to the manufacture of petrochemical products and the refining of gasoline.

Refractory products generally fall into one of two broad categories: preformed shapes or unformed compositions, often called specialty or monolithic refractories. Then, there are refractory ceramic fibers, which resemble residential insulation, but insulate at much higher temperatures. Bricks and shapes are the more traditional form of refractories and historically have accounted for the majority of refractory production.

Refractories come in all shapes and sizes. They can be pressed or molded for use in floors and walls, produced in interlocking shapes and wedges, or curved to fit the insides of boilers and ladles. Some refractory parts are small and possess a complex and delicate geometry; others, in the form of precast or fusion-cast blocks, are massive and may weigh several tons.

What Are Refractories Made Of?

Refractories are produced from natural and synthetic materials, usually nonmetallic, or combinations of compounds and minerals such as alumina, fireclays, bauxite, chromite, dolomite, magnesite, silicon carbide, and zirconia.

What Are Refractories Used For?

From the simple (e.g., fireplace brick linings) to the sophisticated (e.g., reentry heat shields for the space shuttle), refractories are used to contain heat and protect processing equipment from intense temperatures. In industry, they are used to line boilers and furnaces of all types (reactors, ladles, stills, kilns, etc.).

It is a tribute to refractory engineers, scientists, technicians, and plant personnel that more than 5,000 brand name products in the United States are listed in the latest “Product Directory of the Refractories Industry.”

Watch Taming the Flame: The Story of Refractories.