A refractory material is one 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 1,000 °F (811 K; 538 °C)".
Refractory materials must be chemically and physically stable at high temperatures. Depending on the operating environment, they need to 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). Fireclays are also widely used in the manufacture of refractories.
Refractories must be chosen according to the conditions they will face. Some applications require special refractory materials. Zirconia is used when the material must withstand extremely high temperatures. Silicon carbide and carbon 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.
Refractories can be classified on the basis of chemical composition, method of manufacture, physical form or according to their applications.
These are used in areas where slag and atmosphere are acidic. They are stable to acids but attacked by alkalis. The main raw materials belongs to the RO2 group, ex- silica (SiO2), zirconia (ZrO2) etc.
These are used in areas where slags and atmosphere are either acidic or basic and are chemically stable to both acids and bases. The main raw materials belongs to, but not confined to, R2O3 group. The common examples of these materials are alumina (Al2O3), chromia ( Cr2O3) and carbon.
These are used on areas where slags and atmosphere are basic, stable to alkaline materials but reacts with acids. The main raw materials belongs to the RO group to which magnesia (MgO) is a very common example. Other examples includes dolomite and chrome-magnesia.
These have fixed size and shapes. These may be further divided into standard shapes and special shapes. Standard shapes have dimension that are conformed by most refractory manufacturers and are generally applicable to kilns or furnaces of the same types. Special shapes are specifically made for particular kilns or furnaces.
These are without definite form and are only given shape upon application. These types are better known as monolithic refractories. The common examples are plastic masses, Ramming masses, castables, gunning masses, fettling mix, mortars etc.
All refractory require anchorage systems such as wire formed anchors, hexmetal, or ceramic tiles to support the refractory linings. The anchorage used for refractory on roofs and vertical walls are more critical as they must remain able to support the weight of refractory even at the elevated temperatures and operating conditions.
The commonly used anchorages have circular or rectangular cross-section. Circular cross-section are used for low thickness refractory and they support less weight per unit area; whereas the rectangular cross-section is used for high thickness refractory and can support higher weight of refractory per unit area. The number of anchors to be used depend on the operating conditions and the refractory materials. The choice of anchors material, shape, numbers and size has significant impact on the useful life of the refractory.
Usually, refractories require special heat-up techniques to ensure that their performance will be attained as designed, and to avoid thermal shock and drying stresses until the operational status is achieved.