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Uses of natural graphite
Natural graphite is mostly consumed for refractories, steelmaking, expanded graphite, brake linings, and foundry facings-lubricants. Graphene, which occurs naturally in graphite, has unique physical properties and might be one of the strongest substances known; however, the process of separating it from graphite will require some technological development before it is economically feasible to use it in industrial processes.
This end-use begins before 1900 with the graphite crucible used to hold molten metal; this is now a minor part of refractories. In the mid 1980s, the carbon-magnesite brick became important, and a bit later the alumina-graphite shape. Currently the order of importance is alumina-graphite shapes, carbon-magnesite brick, monolithics (gunning and ramming mixes), and then crucibles.
Crucibles began using very large flake graphite, and carbon-magnesite brick requiring not quite so large flake graphite; for these and others there is now much more flexibility in size of flake required, and amorphous graphite is no longer restricted to low-end refractories. Alumina-graphite shapes are used as continuous casting ware, such as nozzles and troughs, to convey the molten steel from ladle to mold, and carbon magnesite bricks line steel converters and electric arc furnaces to withstand extreme temperatures. Graphite Blocks are also used in parts of blast furnace linings where the high thermal conductivity of the graphite is critical. High-purity monolithics are often used as a continuous furnace lining instead of the carbon-magnesite bricks.The US and European refractories industry had a crisis in 2000–2003, with an indifferent market for steel and a declining refractory consumption per tonne of steel underlying firm buyouts and many plant closings. Many of the plant closings resulted from the acquisition of Harbison-Walker Refractories by Radex-Heraklith, Inc. (RHI); some plants had their equipment auctioned off. Since much of the lost capacity was for carbon-magnesite brick, graphite consumption within refractories area moved towards alumina-graphite shapes and monolithics, and away from the brick.The major source of carbon-magnesite brick is now imports from China. Almost all of the above refractories are used to make steel and account for 75% of refractory consumption; the rest is used by a variety of industries, such as cement.
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