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It may come as a surprise to many, but advanced electronic ceramics are right at home at events such as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), based each year in Las Vegas. Major companies have all used CES as a launching pad to showcase their newest products. While high-tech consumer gadgets get the most attention from the approximately 150,000 people who flock to CES from all over the world, it is miniaturized electronic ceramics that make many of these coveted futuristic products possible.
Electronic CeramicsTo get a better sense at how influential electronic ceramic components are in the development of a wide range of consumer devices-from smart phones and smart homes to healthcare and computers-we need to first understand what is meant by electronic ceramics.
The functions of electronic ceramic materials are varied and can include dielectric, pyroelectric (rapid response to temperature change), insulating, magnetic (electromagnetic energy conversion), piezoelectric (converting electric signals to oscillation), and semiconductive. These materials are used to implement single-function electronic components such as capacitors, filters, sensors and resonators, as well as multifunctional devices such as a Bluetooth® wireless module using a low-temperature co-fired ceramic (LTCC) substrate.
The evolution of electronic ceramic components can be defined by several key factors, but size reduction is one of the more significant. As consumer electronics decreased their size and became sleeker and thinner, so did the ceramic components used inside them, including multilayer ceramic capacitors (MLCCs), dielectric filters, sensors, and ceramic resonators. In fact, the downsizing trend essentially began in 1955, with the invention of the first transistor radio, and rapidly progressed with the popularity of mobile phones in the 1990s. Electronic ceramics have been shrinking ever since.
Ceramic EvolutionCeramic technology and a deep knowledge of ceramic materials at the molecular level have ushered in the futuristic electronics we see today, such as smart meters, 3-D TVs, and even robots. In addition, this broader understanding of ceramic properties has led to the realization that these materials can replace and, in many cases, outperform traditional materials. Further, they do not have negative global impacts, such as tantalum, which is a conflict mineral.
In 2000, a 10 microfarad MLCC in an Electronic Industry Association (EIA) 1206 case size was nearly state of the art. Through technology improvements, the case size for a 10 microfarad MLCC has been reduced to EIA case sizes 0805 and then to 0603.
One of the driving factors behind the miniaturization of MLCCs includes new high-dielectric-constant ceramic materials, which feature submicron particles and fine electrodes. Tight processes enable the production of highly reliable ultra-thin dielectric layers down to the sub-1.0 micrometer thickness. Not only does this evolution include dramatic size reduction, but an impressive increase in functionality has enabled design engineers to develop products that achieve both a sleek profile and perform several sophisticated functions at once.
Myriad ApplicationsOverall, the evolution of electronic ceramics is a result of market demands, specifically consumers demanding more features in a smaller package without sacrificing quality, and engineers delving into the mechanics of ceramics to exceed these needs. For example, a module design using a LTCC substrate results in a highly integrated, miniaturized and full-featured solution that features embedded passive component functionality.
As another example, wireless modules incorporating Bluetooth and Wi-Fi chipsets are being used more frequently as engineers are recognizing the value propositions compared to discrete circuit implementations. A LTCC-based module occupies significantly less (double-digit percent) motherboard real estate than a functionally same discrete implementation.
Smart phones are also using wireless modules, along with a host of other electronic ceramic-based components. Today’s typical smart phone contains nearly 250 capacitors, about 50 chip inductors and electromagnetic interference (EMI) suppression filters, and a handful of other ceramic electronic components. While this is impressive, it is important to recognize that just about every consumer device could contain a significant quantity of ceramic electronic components. Another relevant example is that of a digital TV, which may contain more than 1000 ceramic capacitors and 50 EMI suppression filters.
One of the newest consumer demands is not just space-saving devices, but energy-saving characteristics as well. Long-lasting battery power is a critical aspect of any new mobile device, and electronic ceramics are leading the way for battery power conservation. Electronic ceramic components are also integral to energy management, as they are now used in numerous wireless smart grid products designed to manage and conserve energy use and lower utility costs.
Consider smart meters (a part of the smart grid), which provide two-way communication on energy consumption from the home/business to the utility and vice-versa. These high-tech devices rely on new component technology to improve reliability, cost savings and communication capability. Typical electronic components used in a smart meter include ceramic resonators, dielectric RF and ceramic IF filters, MLCCs, high-voltage safety caps, chip inductors and EMI filters, thermistors, electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection devices, wireless modules, anisotropic magnetoresistance (AMR) sensors, ceramic shock sensors, and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags.
Each of these technologies performs a different yet necessary function within the meter. If the meter is shaken, moved, etc., a shock sensor can detect the movement and send a signal to the utility to alert them. To achieve this, each meter is fitted with an advanced piezoelectric ceramic shock sensor that generates an electric charge or a voltage that is proportional to the applied acceleration.
Power management is also an emerging application, particularly to extend battery life in mobile devices. Low equivalent series resistance (ESR) MLCCs are indispensible for use in conjunction with IC chips sets.
Taking power management a step further, engineers have been working on various ways to recharge devices. One of the more advanced options is wireless charging, including equipment that can charge multiple devices at once. Using capacitive coupling instead of conductive or inductive charging, conductive material or coils are replaced with transmitters and receivers. Unlike conductive or inductive charging, the capacitive charging system is not subject to coils alignment issues.
Another area of great interest and promise is energy harvesting, which can be used to generate a small amount of electric energy from vibration, heat or light. Devices made from piezoelectric materials can extract energy from vibration, while thermoelectric conversion elements based on multilayer technology use thermal differentials. In addition, photovoltaic cells are able to generate electricity from just room light. Energy around us exists in minute quantities, usually less than 1 milliwatt, but by effectively managing it, equipment can be operated for some time without the need for wires or batteries. Of particular interest is the use of energy harvesting in conjunction with wireless sensor networks, where changing batteries on a periodic basis is not practical. Needless to say, this technology has potential for a vast range of applications.
One application that draws a lot of interest is robots. A bike-riding robot called Murata Boy can move effortlessly with the aid of numerous ceramic-based electronics, including capacitors; inductors; thermistors; shock, ultrasonic and gyro sensors; antennas; and filters. Perhaps more impressively, Murata Girl rides a unicycle and can balance while moving backward and forward. She, too, is manufactured using high-quality ceramic components like ultrasonic and gyro sensors, DC-DC converters, and Bluetooth modules. In both robots, the ultrasonic sensors detect obstacles to avoid collisions, and the gyro sensors provide the robots with the ability to idle while positioned on the bikes and ride very slowly without losing their balance.
While applications in healthcare devices and products may seem to be a stretch for ceramics, the progression is actually very natural. For example, consider sensing and wireless communication technologies, which enable products such as health management equipment for home use and even fitness games. Ceramic-based sensors can calculate pulse and blood oxygen content by detecting minute voltage changes from either heart activity or in the hemoglobin concentration (both of which are based on electrocardiographic and plethysmographic methods). By combing low-energy-use wireless technology such as Bluetooth Low Energy with this sensor, new types of devices can be developed. Measurement findings can also be recorded on a remote server, and healthcare practitioners can check the results from just about anywhere and any time by using a smart phone.
Continued DevelopmentCES is the benchmark when it comes to showcasing all of the latest and greatest consumer products and technologies. Some products are immediate, while others are more futuristic concepts. Either way, ceramics are always a constant in this evolution. What happens in Vegas shouldn’t necessarily stay in Vegas-particularly when it comes to products enabled by advanced ceramics.
For more information, contact Murata Electronics North America, Inc., 2200 Lake Park Dr., Smyrna, GA 30080-7604; call (800) 241-6574; or visit www.murata-northamerica.com.