CARBORUNDUM, a silicide of carbon formed by the action of carbon on sand (silica) at high temperatures, which on account of its great hardness is an important abrasive, and also has possible applications in the metallurgy of iron and steel. Its name was derived from carbon and corundum (a form of alumina), from a mistaken view as to its composition. It was first obtained accidentally in 1891 by Acheson in America, when he was experimenting with the electric furnace in the hope of producing artificial diamonds. The experiments were followed up in an incandescence furnace, which on a larger scale is now employed for the industrial manufacture of the product. A full description of the process has been given in the Journ. Soc. Chem. Industry, 1897, vol. xvi. p. 863. The furnace is rectangular, about 16 ft. long and 5 ft. wide by 5 ft. high, with massive brick end walls 2 ft. thick, through which are built the carbon poles, consisting of bundles of 60 parallel 3-in. carbon rods, each 3 ft. in length, with a copper rod let into the outer end to connect it with a copper cap, which in turn is connected with one of the terminals of the generating dynamo. The spaces between the carbons of the electrode are packed tightly with graphite. In preparing the furnace for use, transverse iron screens are placed temporarily across each end, the space between these and the end walls being rammed with fine coke, and that in the interior is filled to the level of the centre of the carbon poles with the charge, consisting of 34 parts of coke, with 54 of sand, 10 of sawdust and 2 of salt. A longitudinal trench is then formed in the middle, and in this is arranged a cylindrical pile of fragments of coke about in. or more in diameter, so that they form a core, about 21 in. in diameter, connecting the carbon poles in the end walls. Temporary side walls are then built up, the iron screens are removed, and a further quantity of charge is heaped up about 3 ft. above the top of the furnace. An alternating current of about 1700 amperes at 190 volts is now switched on; as the mass becomes heated by the passage of the current the resistance diminishes, and the current is regulated until after about 2 hours or less from starting it is maintained constant at about 6000 amperes and 125 volts. Carbon monoxide is given off and burns freely around the sides and top of the furnace, tinged yellow after a time by the sodium in the salt mixed with the charge. Meanwhile a shrinkage takes place, which is made good by the addition of a further quantity of charge until the operation is complete, usually in about 36 hours from the commencement. The current is then switched off, and the side walls, after cooling for a day, are taken down, the comparatively unaltered charge from the top is removed, and the products are carefully extracted. These consist of the inner carbon core, which at the temperature of the furnace will have been for the most part converted into graphite, then a thin black crust of graphite mixed with carborundum, next a layer of nearly pure crystallized carborundum about a foot in thickness, then grey amorphous carbide of silicon mixed with increasing proportions of unaltered charge, and lastly, on the outside, the portion of the charge which had never reached the temperature necessary for reaction, and which is altered only by the intrusion of salt from the inner part of the furnace. Special precautions are taken in making and breaking the intense current here used (amounting at the end to about 750 kilowatts, or 1000 E.H.P.), a water-regulator consisting of removable iron plates dipped in salt water being used for the purpose. In such a furnace as that above described the charge weighs about 14 tons, the yield of carborundum is about 3 tons, and the expenditure of energy about 3.9 kilowatt-hours (5.2 H.P.-hours) per pound of finished product. The carborundum thus produced is crystalline, greenish, bluish or brownish in colour, sometimes opaque, but often translucent, resisting the action of even the strongest acids, and the action of air or of sulphur at high temperatures. The crude product can therefore be treated with hot sulphuric acid to purify it. In hardness it nearly equals the diamond, and it is used for tool-grinding in the form of vitrified wheels (mixed with powdered porcelain and iron, pressed into shape and fired in a kiln). Carborundum paper, made like emery paper, is now largely used in place of garnetpaper in American shoe factories, and finds a market in other directions. The amorphous carbide, which was at first a waste product, has been tried, it is reported, with success as a lining for steel furnaces, as it is said not to be affected by iron or iron oxide at a white heat.
(W. G. M.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)