FIREBRICK. - Under this term are included all bricks, blocks and slabs used for lining furnaces, fire-mouths, flues, etc., where the brickwork has to withstand high temperature (see Brick).
The conditions to which firebricks are subjected in use vary very greatly as regards changes of temperature, crushing strain, corrosive action of gases, scouring action of fuel or furnace charge, chemical action of furnace charge and products of combustion, etc., and in order to meet these different conditions many varieties of firebricks are manufactured.
Ordinary firebricks are made from fireclays, i.e. from clays which withstand a high temperature without fusion, excessive shrinkage or warping. Many clays fulfil these conditions although the term "fireclay" is generally restricted in use to certain shales from the Coal Measures, which contain only a small percentage of soda, potash and lime, and are consequently highly refractory. There is no fixed standard of refractoriness for these clays, but no clay should be classed as a fireclay which has a fusion point below 1600° C.
Fireclays vary considerably in chemical composition, but generally the percentage of alumina and silica (taken together) is high, and the percentage of oxide of iron, magnesia, lime, soda and potash (taken together) is low. Other materials, such as lime, bauxite, etc., are also used for the manufacture of firebricks where special chemical or other properties are necessary.
The suitability of a fireclay for the manufacture of the various fireclay goods depends upon its physical character as well as upon its refractoriness, and it is often necessary to mix with the clay a certain proportion of ground firebrick, ganister, sand or some similar refractory material in order to obtain a suitable brick. Speaking generally, fireclay goods used for lining furnaces where the firing is continuous, or where the lining is in contact with molten metal or other flux, are best made from fine-grained plastic clays; whereas firebricks used in fire-mouths and other places which are subjected to rapid changes of temperature must be made from coarser-grained and consequently less plastic clays. In all cases care should be taken to obtain a texture and also, as far as possible, by selection and mixing, to obtain a chemical composition suitable for the purpose to which the goods are to be applied. The Coal Measure clays often contain nodules of siderite in addition to the carbonate of iron disseminated in fine particles throughout the mass, and these nodules are carefully picked out as far as practicable before the clay is used.
A firebrick suitable for ordinary purposes should be even and rather open in texture, fairly coarse in grain, free from cracks or warping, strong enough to withstand the pressure to which it may be subjected when in use, and sufficiently fired to ensure practically the full contraction of the material. Very few fireclays meet all these requirements, and it is usual to mix a certain proportion of ground firebrick, ganister, sand or clay with the fireclay before making up. The fireclay or shale or other materials are ground either between rollers or on perforated pans, and then passed through sieves to ensure a certain size and evenness of grain, after which the clay and other materials are mixed in suitable proportion in the dry state, water being generally added in the mixing mill, and the bricks made up from plastic or semi-plastic clay in the ordinary way.
The proportion of ground firebrick, etc., used depends on the nature of the clay and the purpose for which the material is required, but generally speaking the more plastic clays require a higher percentage of a plastic material than the less plastic clays, the object being to produce a clay mixture which shall dry and fire without cracking, warping or excessive shrinkage, and which shall retain after firing a sufficiently open and even texture to withstand alternate heatings and coolings without cracking or flaking. For special purposes special mixtures are required and many expedients are used to obtain fireclay goods having certain specific qualities. In preparing clay for the manufacture of ordinary fire-grate backs, etc., where the temperature is very variable but never very high, a certain percentage of sawdust is often mixed with the fireclay, which burns out on firing and ensures a very open or porous texture. Such material is much less liable to splitting or flaking in use than one having a closer texture, but it is useless for furnace lining and similar work, where strength and resistance to wear and tear are essential. For the construction of furnaces, fire-mouths, etc., the firebrick used must be sufficiently strong and rigid to withstand the crushing strain of the superimposed brickwork, etc., at the highest temperature to which they are subjected.
The wearing out of a firebrick used in the construction of furnaces, etc., takes place in various ways according to the character of the brick and the particular conditions to which it is subjected. The firebrick may waste by crumbling - due to excessive porosity or openness of texture; it may waste by shattering, due to the presence of large pebbles, pieces of limestone, etc.; it may gradually wear away by the friction of the descending charge in the furnace, of the solid particles carried by the flue gases and of the flue gases themselves; it may waste by the gradual vitrification of the surface through contact with fluxing materials: in cases where it is subjected to very high temperature it will gradually vitrify and contract and so split and fall away from the setting. It is a well-recognized fact that successive firings to a temperature approaching the fusion point, or long continued heating near that temperature, will gradually produce vitrification, which brings about a very dense mass and close texture, and entirely alters the properties of the brick.
Where firebricks are in contact with the furnace charge it is necessary that the texture shall be fairly close, and that the chemical composition of the brick shall be such as to retard the formation of fusible double silicates as much as possible. Where the furnace charge is basic the firebrick should, generally speaking, be basic or aluminous and not siliceous, i.e. it should be made from a fireclay containing little free silica, or from such a fireclay to which a high percentage of alumina, lime, magnesia, or iron oxide has been added. For such purposes firebricks are often made from materials containing little or no clay, as for example mixtures of calcined and uncalcined magnesite; mixtures of lime and magnesia and their carbonates; mixtures of bauxite and clay; mixtures of bauxite, clay and plumbago; bauxite and oxide of iron, etc.
In certain cases it is necessary to use an acid brick, and for the manufacture of these a highly siliceous mineral, such as chert or ganister, is used, mixed if necessary with sufficient clay to bind the material together. Dinas fireclay, so-called, and the ganisters of the south Yorkshire coal-fields are largely used for making these siliceous firebricks, which may be also used where the brickwork does not come in contact with basic material, as in the arches, etc., of many furnaces. It is evident that no particular kind of firebrick can be suitable for all purposes, and the manufacturer should endeavour to make his bricks of a definite composition, texture, &., to meet certain definite requirements, recognizing that the materials at his disposal may be ill-adapted or entirely unsuitable for making firebricks for other purposes. In setting firebricks in position, a thin paste of fireclay and water or of material similar to that of which the brick is composed, must be used in place of ordinary mortar, and the joints should be as close as possible, only just sufficient of the paste being used to enable the bricks to bed on one another.
It has long been the practice on certain works to wash the face of firebrick work with a thin paste of some very refractory material - such as kaolin - in order to protect the firebricks from the direct action of the flue gases, etc., and quite recently a thin paste of carborundum and clay, or carborundum and silicate of soda has been more extensively used for the same purpose. So-called carborundum bricks have been put on the market, which have a coating of carborundum and clay fired on to the firebrick, and which are said to have a greatly extended life for certain purposes. It is probable that the carborundum gradually decomposes in the firing, leaving a thin coating of practically pure silica which forms a smooth, impervious and highly-refractory facing.
(J. B.*; W. B.*)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)