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A record crowd of 210 attended the St. Louis/RCD symposium earlier this week. Credit: ACerS.

I just got back from the St. Louis Section/Refractory Ceramics Division meeting that took place this week on March 26–27. Besides offering top-notch technical presentations on refractory binding systems, two milestone anniversaries were celebrated at this year’s event. (For the meeting program, click here to download the PDF.)

A record-breaking 210 people attended the 50th symposium on refractories, sponsored by the St. Louis Section and the Refractory Ceramics Division. Reflecting the global importance of the refractories industry and the industries it supports, attendees came from Germany, Brazil, Canada, Norway, Australia, Peru, Ecuador, France, and China.

The theme of this year’s symposium was “Refractory Bonding Systems.” In conjunction with this event, the RCD and St. Louis Section hold their annual business meetings, and the ASTM Committee C08 on refractories meets, too.

They say a chain is only as strong as its weakest link—binder systems in refractories are similar. The properties and performance of the cementing phase are every bit as important as the performance of the aggregate. In the case of castables, the installation must be done correctly and dryout must be conducted properly. The symposium talks—all invited—demonstrated the complexity of this aspect of refractory engineering.

Wednesday opened with a keynote address from Chris Parr of Kerneos, who provided an overview of refractory bond systems for monolithic castable refractories. An anecdote he provided illustrated challenges that can arise “in the field.” An installation in China was not going well because of very cold temperatures, and the refractory was not setting properly—eventually it came out that the local installer added antifreeze to keep the cement from freezing, which also prevented the cement from hydrating! His point was that engineering cement systems needs to account for performance, but also the realities of conditions installers will encounter.

A critical step in refractory installation is the dryout process. Done wrong, the results can be catastrophic and lead to explosive spalling of refractory linings. Irish Cobane from Hotwork USA talked about the challenges with bringing a furnace online properly and the importance of planning this important step in to a build or rebuild from the start.

Speaking from a different perspective, Victor Pandolfelli, professor from Federal University of Sao Carlos (Brazil) provided a fascinating update on his work with nanoscale colloidal silica and colloidal alumina in binder systems. His results showed the development of flexible refractory materials, some of which are self-healing after crack initiation from thermal shock.

Pandolfelli’s enthusiasm for refractory research seeped out through his talk with sayings like, “In my view, there is nothing more challenging than a refractory.” He says modeling and simulation experts are “scared to death” of refractories because of their complexity.

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Smith receives the T.J. Planje award from Orville Hunter. Credit: ACerS.

Professor Jeffrey Smith from the Missouri University of Science and Technology (MS&T) would likely agree with Pandolfelli’s assessment that refractories are complex engineering systems. He, too, is passionate about refractory ceramics and may be the only ceramics professor still researching and teaching the art and science of refractory materials.

Smith interpreted his career in terms of people along the way who had a lasting impact on him. All are noteworthy, of course, but two stand out to me as lessons we can all appreciate.

First, right before he left for college at Iowa State University, Smith’s uncle (an admiral in the US Navy) called him to suggest he look into ceramic engineering. Smith, like many of us, had never heard of ceramic engineering. Sometimes we wonder how to attract young people to our profession, but the simple answer is to reach out to them. We have much more influence over the youth we know than we realize, and probably more than many professors.

The other mentor that Smith mentioned is Jay Witter, who worked for US Steel. Apparently, Witter had noticed the young Smith and his commitment to refractories, and he invited Smith to spend several days at the steel mill to “see how refractories are really used.” Since then, Smith has been in many more steel, aluminum, and glass plants. He acknowledged the importance of these visits to his teaching, saying, “That’s where we learn about the practical side of what we do.”

The symposium banquet on Wednesday was a celebration of the two milestone anniversaries. Kent Weisenstein, one of the five founders of the Missouri Refractories Company (MORCO), gave a brief history of the symposium’s 50 years and the people who have been key contributors to the industry and symposium. An avid sportsman (who still pitches for his softball team), he had commemorative baseballs signed by Whitey Herzog for people like Charlie Semler, Mark Stett, Dick Bradt, and others.

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Kent Weisenstein is one of the founders of the St. Louis Section Symposium and has been at all 50. He shared some thoughts and provided perspective on this successful event at the banquet. Credit: ACerS.

Weisenstein, by the way, was instrumental in starting the symposium and has been at every of the 50 symposia. He says that Missouri has always had a robust refractory industry, but there was a need in industry to better understand the chemical and physical effects they were dealing with in the field. Weisenstein says, “We needed to bring industry and universities together—the theory and the practical.”

With MS&T nearby and the University of Illinois within driving distance, the symposium became a place for “theory and practical” to intersect in a productive way. Later, when the Refractory Ceramics Division needed a home for it’s technical program, the St. Louis Section symposium was a natural fit, to the benefit of the global refractory ceramics community.

In addition, the ASTM Committee C08 on refractories celebrated its centenary anniversary at this event, and it counts among its members many ACerS RCD members.

The refractory ceramics industry has changed a lot over the years, and it has had to adapt to changing realities. However, it is alive and well and ready to take on its next challenges!

Featured image: Banquet attendees enjoy Kent Weisenstein’s remarks on the history of the symposium. Credit: ACerS.