Reinvented with the latest science, humankind’s oldest synthetic materials usher in a new age of engineered solutions.
"Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) hold great potential to advance human productivity, health, safety and living standards in the 21st century"
For manufacturers, the never-ending quest to make things stronger, faster, cleaner, and smarter is a game of overcoming obstacles. Each challenge leads to another and being the first to solve, and one can bring great rewards.
But today the game is changing. No longer are breakthroughs impeded mainly by a lack of ideas, research funding, or start-up capital – the traditional obstacles of our past. In many fields, the next barriers to progress lurk in the last place we would ever suspect. And these obstacles will escape our scrutiny because they’re disguised to look like our trusted friends. They’re our materials.
Yes, we have conventional alloys, polymers, and composites to thank for many modern miracles. But the limitations of conventional materials now define what we consider to be possible. Consequently, the known limitations of conventional materials keep many breakthrough ideas trapped in the human imagination, when better materials could have sprung them into epoch-making new products or technologies.
Material limitations also impede further advances in manufacturing quality and productivity. Without better-performing materials, breakthroughs will eventually cease to be born – it’s that simple. So, where are they?
We love reading about graphene, carbon nanotubes, and aerogels, but most of us have never seen these new-age materials in real life… after decades of reading. Ceramics, in contrast, represent the earliest known synthetic material, having originated with Stone-Age clay and pottery. Ironically, materials scientists now believe high-tech ceramics offer the best alternative to many other materials in the quest to solve today’s toughest engineering challenges. Since many engineers lack deep experience with advanced ceramics or confidence in applying them, it’s time to look at these materials up close.
Fine ceramics, as the latest generation is known, comprise a family of super materials engineered to achieve extreme performance objectives. Stronger and harder than metals or plastics, they can survive the heat of a blast furnace or the destructive effects of corrosive acids. They can protect people and equipment from electrical charges exceeding a million volts. Designed for high-impact applications, these “superheroes” of the materials sciences can stop a speeding bullet. No other family of materials offers the same physical, chemical, thermal, electrical and optical properties as fine ceramics (see sidebar on page x).
Today’s fine ceramics are at work in applications ranging from smartphones to heart pacemakers – and in such extreme operating environments as jet engines, the ocean floor, near-Earth asteroids, and even the surface of Mars. Here are a few examples.
AI and IoT: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) hold great potential to advance human productivity, health, safety and living standards in the 21st century – with the Wall Street Journal forecasting a net increase by 2030 in global GDP of 16%, or about $13 trillion, through AI alone. Both technologies will require significant advances in data processing power and connectivity, which are expected to create strong demand for microelectronic substrates, semiconductor packages, and miniaturized electronic components, including capacitors and crystal devices. Some of these newest components are as small as a grain of salt! By facilitating the component miniaturization necessary to allow higher-density circuits, ceramics are expected to play a vital role in AI and IoT deployment.
Industrial Applications: Because of their historical association with teacups and dinnerware, ceramics are often assumed to be delicate materials – but today’s engineered ceramics are a different breed. Many people are surprised to learn that cermet, a ceramic-metal composite, has become essential for advancing the quality and productivity of industrial metal processing – in cutting automotive engine parts, drive systems, and aerospace components at high speeds. A CVD coating enhances hardness and wears resistance even further, creating an ideal edge for cutting, turning, milling, and finishing in a wide range of steel and cast-iron machining operations.
Orthopedic Implants: In an orthopedic joint replacement, wear resulting from friction at the bearing interface is the No.1 cause of implant failure. The most common failure mechanism involves microscopic particles of “wear debris” that lodge in surrounding tissues and cause osteolysis over time. This issue is gaining prominence as lifestyle factors produce a lower average age among joint replacement candidates, and as patients desire the implant to be a permanent solution. Orthopedic engineers are consequently focused on reducing or eliminating wear from the joint’s bearing interface by combining advanced ceramics with other material technologies. One proprietary material combination has shown to reduce this wear by an astounding 98% in the most recent in-vitro testing.
Scientific Instruments: The extreme performance capabilities of fine ceramics make them essential for advancing the frontiers of scientific knowledge. Prominent examples appear in the Mars rovers, asteroid probes, astronomical telescopes, and particle accelerators. Space applications experience particular challenges due to thermal cycling, which can cause phase transformations that degrade vital components. To avoid this, satellites and space vehicles with fiber-optic systems have relied on specially formulated ceramic to ensure datalink reliability amid the extreme thermal cycling conditions of space.