[Image above] Unitcr 2015 was held in Vienna, Austria, this week. Credit: ACerS
It’s been a tough gig, but someone had to do it.
I’ve been in Vienna, Austria, attending the 14th Unified International Technical Conference on Refractories (Unitecr). Unitecr began in 1989 and takes place every two years.
I don’t feel sorry for me either!
It’s been a great conference in a great city with interesting people working on challenging problems. Unitecr president Nikolaus Kreuels said 900 people from 47 countries attended the conference, and presented 170 talks and 100 posters. Peter Quirmbach says the “Success can be measured also by the mood and the spirit. At this Unitecr the mood has been very good and spirits very high.” Quirmbach leads the European Centre for Refractories in Germany, which served as the legal organizer of Unitecr 2015.
The technical conference opened on Wednesday, Sept. 16, with three speakers in a plenary session. The global steel industry consumes 75% of refractories produced, and the fortunes of the refractory industry track with the fortunes of the steel industry. The first plenary speaker, H. J Kerkhoff, president of the German Steel Foundation, framed some issues facing the steel industry in his talk, “The steel industry in Germany—global challenges and regional responsibilities.”
Markets with “high potentials do not lead directly to high growth,” Kerkhoff says about steel production. He cited recessionary economic trends in Brazil and Russia—markets that had been expected to be growth markets for steel—that have reduced demand instead. Also, demand for steel in China, which has led the world in steel production since 2008, appears to have peaked and began to contract in 2014. Heavy government subsidies to the Chinese steel industry have led to excess inventory that finds its way into the global steel market.
According to Kerkhoff, the steel market in the European Union shows signs of growth, albeit slow growth, and production started to rise in 2014. He noted how important steel is to a “successful value chain” in industries such as automotive, food, construction, electrical, etc. Kerkhoff also made the case for a holistic approach to emissions trading that looks at recycling capability and life cycle aspects of steel.
The second plenary speaker was Andreas Buhr, global technical director, refractories with Almatis. Buhr noted that one-tenth of the steel grades produced today are less than ten years old. “Since 1985, we’ve seen a huge drop in impurities for high quality steels, owing to improvements in secondary metallurgy,” he says. In turn, tight alloying specifications and “cleaner” steel production drive refractory design, especially for functional refractories such as slide gates and purging plugs.
The final plenary speaker, Anja Geigenmueller, is professor of marketing at Technical University, Ilmenau, Germany, and shared results of a recent refractory research roadmapping project. The roadmap revealed four priority areas: interdisciplinary collaboration between universities and industry; “global education for a global business;” driving innovation through access to R&D resources, especially for small and medium-sized companies; and promoting awareness of the industry along with managing its image.
In addition to technical sessions, an interesting panel discussion on Thursday brought together ten representatives from across the spectrum of steelmaking: refractory manufacturers, refractory buying managers, and industry R&D leaders. On the subject of whether refractories should be thought of as engineered products or commodities, Steven Resler, refractory procurement manager for ArcelorMittal, says, “I take my cue from how many people are trying to sell me refractories.” The more there are, the less unique and more commoditized that refractory type is. The panel also had spirited conversations on refractory failure, refractory technology “know how,” and the trade-offs between refractory cost and productivity.
The banquet provided a proud moment for ACerS when Fellow Jeffrey Smith was named a Distinguished Life Member of Unitecr in recognition of his research and education accomplishments in the refractories field. The honor was conferred on him at a gala banquet on Wednesday evening. Smith is associate professor of ceramic engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. The banquet was held in the elegant Vienna City Hall and enjoyed by 850 people. Plenary speaker Andreas Buhr was also named a DLM.
The ACerS Refractory Ceramics Division provided support for two students to attend Unitecr. Theresa Davey from Imperial College, London, says it was a great experience. “I’ve learned a lot about the industry side and how the field actually functions. Career-wise, it’s given me a better idea of what’s out there and what the field is like,” she says. Davey is a second year Ph.D. student studying high temperature ceramics with Bill Lee and Michael Finnis.
Undergraduate senior Lee Williams from Clemson University says Unitecr has been a “very enriching experience.”
“It’s been more interesting than I expected. There’s more science and research and developing going on… that’s driven by cost, not just for the sake of doing it.”
Williams is exploring graduate school as well as employment options in anticipation of his graduation in May. Attending Unitecr, he says, introduced him to a “whole new option and career path” to consider.
Michael Alexander says the RCD has made student outreach a primary goal. “We want to get students exposed to what’s going on in the industry,” he says. Based on feedback from Davey and Williams, Alexander says, “we definitely met our goals, and we put into our budget for RCD to do something like this for students to come to our St. Louis meeting.”
As this year’s organizers bask in the glow of a successful meeting, plans are well underway for Unitecr 2017, which will be organized by ALAFAR (the Latin America Refractories Association). Mark your calendars now for Sept. 27–29, 2017 in Santiago, Chile!