About ceramic | Print |

What is Ceramic?

Ceramics are classified as inorganic and nonmetallic materials that are essential to our daily lifestyle. Ceramic and materials engineers are the people who design the processes in which these products can be made, create new types of ceramic products, and find different uses for ceramic products in everyday life.

Ceramics are all around us. This category of materials includes things like tile, bricks, plates, glass, and toilets. Ceramics can be found in products like watches (quartz tuning forks-the time keeping devices in watches), snow skies (piezoelectric-ceramics that stress when a voltage is applied to them), automobiles (sparkplugs and ceramic engine parts found in racecars), and phone lines. They can also be found on space shuttles, appliances (enamel coatings), and airplanes (nose cones). Depending on their method of formation, ceramics can be dense or lightweight. Typically, they will demonstrate excellent strength and hardness properties; however, they are often brittle in nature. Ceramics can also be formed to serve as electrically conductive materials, objects allowing electricity to pass through their mass, or insulators, materials preventing the flow of electricity. Some ceramics, like superconductors, also display magnetic properties.

Ceramics are generally made by taking mixtures of clay, earthen elements, powders, and water and shaping them into desired forms. Once the ceramic has been shaped, it is fired in a high temperature oven known as a kiln. Often, ceramics are covered in decorative, waterproof, paint-like substances known as glazes.

Ceramic Processing

Ceramics are generally made by taking mixtures of clay, earthen elements, powders, and water and shaping them into desired forms. Once the ceramic has been shaped, it is fired in a high temperature oven known as a kiln. Often, ceramics are covered in decorative, waterproof, paint-like substances known as glazes.

Ceramic processing is used to produce commercial products that are very diverse in size, shape, detail, complexity, and material composition, structure, and cost. The purpose of ceramics processing to an applied science is the natural result of an increasing ability to refine, develop, and characterize ceramic materials. Ceramics are typically produced by the application of heat upon processed clays and other natural raw materials to form a rigid product. Ceramic products that use naturally occurring rocks and minerals as a starting material must undergo special processing in order to control purity, particle size, particle size distribution, and heterogeneity. These attributes play a big role in the final properties of the finished ceramic. Chemically prepared powders also are used as starting materials for some ceramic products. These synthetic materials can be controlled to produce powders with precise chemical compositions and particle size.

The next step is to form the ceramic particles into a desired shape. This is accomplished by the addition of water and/or additives such as binders, followed by a shape forming process. Some of the most common forming methods for ceramics include extrusion, slip casting, pressing, tape casting and injection molding. After the particles are formed, these "green" ceramics undergo a heat-treatment (called firing or sintering) to produce a rigid, finished product. Some ceramic products such as electrical insulators, dinnerware and tile may then undergo a glazing process. Some ceramics for advanced applications may undergo a machining and/or polishing step in order meet specific engineering design criteria.

Ceramic Properties

The properties of ceramic materials, like all materials, are dictated by the types of atoms present, the types of bonding between the atoms, and the way the atoms are packed together. This is known as the atomic scale structure. Most ceramics are made up of two or more elements. This is called a compound. For example, alumina (Al2O3), is a compound made up of aluminum atoms and oxygen atoms.

The atoms in ceramic materials are held together by a chemical bond. The two most common chemical bonds for ceramic materials are covalent and ionic. For metals, the chemical bond is called the metallic bond. The bonding of atoms together is much stronger in covalent and ionic bonding than in metallic. That is why, generally speaking, metals are ductile and ceramics are brittle. Due to ceramic materials wide range of properties, they are used for a multitude of applications. In general, most ceramics are:

  • hard
  • wear-resistant
  • brittle
  • refractory
  • thermal insulators
  • electrical insulators
  • nonmagnetic
  • oxidation resistant,
  • prone to thermal shock
  • chemically stable.