Scientists, engineers and even business people in the field of ceramics like to describe ceramics as an “enabling” material. What we typically mean is that often ceramic materials serve as a platform for other materials or must be combined or used in some way with other materials, thereby enabling the production of an end-use product or application.

This concept of ceramics being an enabler is, of course, true. But, it wasn’t until yesterday when I attended the Glass Problems Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, and saw the numerous presentations and exhibitors from the refractories field, that it struck me that there is one division of ceramics that often is required to enable other ceramics (and glass): refractory ceramics.

Without the rugged refractory materials used to line high-temperature ovens, kilns, glass furnaces, etc., most ceramics could not be carefully sintered, glass couldn’t be melted properly and cement clinker could not be formed. So, arguably, even the best tinkerers and makers of advanced ceramics and high-tech glasses would be nowhere without our refractory compatriots, and they seldom get the recognition they deserve.

Another area where refractories certainly fail to get the love they deserve is in metalmaking. Modern steelmaking and aluminum production, for example, require sophisticated refractory linings for ladles, troughs, hearths, casters, etc. Unfortunately, the general public has no idea about the critical role that refractories play in these industries (and I am fairly certain that 99.5 percent of the population, I am sure, would be unable to use the words “refractory” or “refractories” in a sentence).

In a certain sense, the area of refractories is the “blue collar” division of the ceramics field, because these materials often perform the same functions day in and day out. But, even the blue collar description often rubs refractory scientists and engineers the wrong way because it fails to acknowledge that the technology and applications are still evolving and still being challenged by such things as the changing demands for energy efficiency and high-purity advanced metals, ceramics and glass.

Given this general lack of appreciation, it’s no wonder that those in the refractories community—researchers, engineers, manufacturers and representatives of consuming industries—stick together and are a pretty tight-knit group.

And, an international group it is, too. Whereas decades ago the centers of gravity for refractory research and production was the United States, other regions, such as South America (particularly Brazil) and Asian (particularly China and India) have surged and established their own research and manufacturing centers of excellence.

Every two years, the refractories R&D world comes together in a grand meeting called UNITECR, which stands for the Unified International Technical Conference on Refractories. UNITECR describes itself as the “biennial international conference that contributes to the progress and exchange of industrial knowledge and technologies concerning refractories.”

For anyone involved in materials development, engineering or production of refractories, UNITECR is a don’t-miss event. Besides academics, people from a wide range of industries—think petrochemicals, glass, cement, mineral processing and metalmaking—get a chance for cross fertilization, networking and sharing of cutting edge R&D. The next UNITECR meeting will be held in Canada and doesn’t occur for another year (Sept. 10-13, 2013, in Victoria, British Columbus), but the deadline for the Call For Papers (pdf) abstracts is Oct. 15, 2012.

Organizers are looking for papers on the following topics:

  • Advanced Testing of Refractories
  • Advanced Installation Techniques & Equipment
  • Monolithic Refractories
  • Iron & Steel Making Refractories
  • Raw Materials Developments & Global Raw Material Issues
  • Refractories for Glass
  • Cement & Lime Refractories
  • Modelling and Simulation of Refractories
  • Petrochemical
  • Refractories for Waste to Energy Processing & Power
  • Energy Savings through Refractory Design
  • Nonoxide Refractory Systems
  • Refractories for Chemical Processes
  • Developments in Basic Refractories
  • Global Education in Refractories
  • Refractories for Nonferrous Metallurgy
  • Safety, Environmental Issues & Recycling Solutions for Refractories.

Organizers are aiming only for around 200 presentations, so if you work in the refractories field and have any interest in presenting, act quickly. From the submitted abstracts, the UNITECR’13 Technical Program Committee will make its final selection based on technical content, as well as the date and order in which abstracts are received. Applicants will be notified if they are selected by Dec. 21, 2012.