A refractory material is a material that retains its strength at high temperatures. ASTM C71 defines refractories as “…non-metallic materials having those chemical and physical properties that make them applicable for structures, or as components of systems, that are exposed to environments above 538 °C
Refractory materials are used in furnaces, kilns, incinerators, and reactors. They are also used to make crucibles and moulds for casting glass and metals and for surfacing flame deflector systems for rocket launch structures. Today, the iron- and steel-industry uses approximately 70% of all refractories produced.
Refractory materials must be chemically and physically stable at high temperatures. Depending on the operating environment, they must be resistant to thermal shock, be chemically inert, and/or have specific ranges of thermal conductivity and of the coefficient of thermal expansion.
The oxides of aluminium (alumina), silicon (silica) and magnesium (magnesia) are the most important materials used in the manufacturing of refractories. Another oxide usually found in refractories is the oxide of calcium (lime). Fire clays are also widely used in the manufacture of refractories.
Refractories must be chosen according to the conditions they face. Some applications require special refractory materials. Zirconia is used when the material must withstand extremely high temperatures. Silicon carbide and carbon (graphite) are two other refractory materials used in some very severe temperature conditions, but they cannot be used in contact with oxygen, as they will oxidize and burn.
Binary compounds such as tungsten carbide or boron nitride can be very refractory. Hafnium carbide is the most refractory binary compound known, with a melting point of 3890 °C.The ternary compound tantalum hafnium carbide has one of the highest melting points of all known compounds (4215 °C)