A startup supported by FAPESP is developing a system to assure the proper use of elements capable of guaranteeing structural integrity at high temperatures while reducing heat transfer from machinery and equipment to the environment (photo: Redlab)

A Brazilian solution to help basic industries manage refractory linings

21 de maio de 2024

By Roseli Andrion  |  FAPESP Innovative R&D – Basic industries such as steel, petrochemicals and cement operate at high temperatures (above 1,000 °C), using electricity or chemical energy to produce intense heat. Much of their machinery and equipment is therefore lined with refractory material to guarantee structural integrity, minimize heat transfer into the environment, and optimize safety, efficiency and productivity.

Good management of refractory linings is essential, and a startup called Redlab is developing a digital platform to provide access to all the necessary information in a practical, rapid and straightforward manner. The project is supported by FAPESP via its Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE).

“We’re calling it a Refractory Intelligence System [RIS] and we’ll convert the analytical data we already have into a scalable platform based on all our experience,” said materials engineer Matheus Santos, who founded Redlab and, after working for a time as a consultant, decided to set up a service that would provide guidance for corporate clients.

According to Santos, the solution will improve process performance in industries that use refractories. Although they are consumables, a minor flaw or fault can cause significant damage. “In some cases, production may have to be shut down for one or two days or more, which could represent millions of dollars in losses. Efficient management of this component helps avoid or reduce these occurrences,” he said.

Information sharing

Another important point is that only the manufacturers of refractories have detailed information on them. “The users of refractories don’t know much about the material, its properties, its performance, or whether it will be good for the process. Our system will collect and provide access to all this information,” Santos said.

Another problem is that users of refractories use different metrics for energy consumption and environmental impact, direct and indirect, among many other aspects. “They don’t always keep data on the basic measurements. Complex calculations are required to compute gains. Our platform will give users access to tools and specific technical information,” said Tamires Milagres, a materials engineer and partner in Redlab.

All the data will be in a single system. “Companies that use refractories sometimes make one person responsible for the information, and that person keeps it all on their computer. If they leave the company, their replacement may have to start collecting information for control purposes all over again. Storing all the data and information in one place makes it easier to maintain consistent records,” she said.

In the absence of a specific solution, most companies lack systematic control and the result is inefficiency. “We aim to ensure that analysis is more precise and that the process is continuous so that control won’t be interrupted when the person responsible for the data leaves the company,” Santos said.

The problem is common globally in companies of most sizes. “We’re in contact with the world’s leading producers of refractories. What we’re developing is new to them all. A tool like this will help speed up digitalization in basic industries, which haven’t advanced much in this direction,” he said.

Cross-border partnership

Initial tests of the platform involving some 20 users led to a partnership with a Chinese university professor who specializes in refractories. “When we presented the idea, she said she was aware of the need to create something of the kind but couldn’t envisage how it would be realized in practice,” Santos said.

Redlab’s team had to learn a great deal about computational techniques in developing the tool, which uses numerical methods, artificial intelligence and other technologies not widely deployed in the segment. “Even for the Chinese market, which is already far more advanced, the solution is innovative. This professor has expressed an interest in partnering with us and will do so in future,” he said.

The startup’s interest in the segment began with the realization that it is relatively unexplored and offers an opportunity to improve communication between manufacturers and users of refractories. “There’s a conflict between producers and buyers. Prospective sellers want to demonstrate the product’s performance, while buyers are often unable to verify possible gains from a change of lining and aren’t willing to pay more even if the material performs better,” Milagres explained. “Our platform will enable clients to quantify potential savings, so they know how much they stand to gain when the time comes to pay.”

Financial gains

Redlab is currently developing its minimum viable product (MVP) but does not yet know exactly how much the solution will save its clients. “We estimate financial gains in the consulting we do. Generally speaking, they’re significant. Downtime for machinery and equipment can mean a production loss worth more than USD 1 million per day in terms of sales,” Santos said.

The impact may vary depending on the process. “In some cases, a standard process has been in use for 25 years, and deciding to change it represents a risk. If the material’s behavior can be predicted before a decision is made, it’s possible to save money. Studies have shown that changing the properties of a refractory can reduce power consumption to conserve the temperature of a vessel, for example,” he said.

Because basic industries produce on a large scale, a 1% gain can represent millions of dollars every year. “When users implement the solution, we’ll be able to estimate the benefits, and everyone will certainly be very pleased with the results,” he said.

The high temperatures typical of processes in the segment inspired the startup’s name: “red” alludes to the color of very hot materials and is also an acronym for “ecologically designed refractories” in Portuguese (Refratários Ecologicamente Desenhados), while “lab” is intended to indicate the innovative nature of the solution.

Active users

There should soon be active users of the first version according to the timetable for development of the solution. “The next step will be to add functionality incrementally. Indeed, that’s a major advantage of digital systems: you can enhance the tool continually on the basis of the feedback received,” Milagres said.

The short-term goal is to have more than 150 active users in two years. This number is a small fraction of the segment but should be sufficient to allow Redlab to attract more clients. According to its estimates, the segment has approximately 20,000 potential users.