Investing in Ceramics: New Zirconia-Based Ceramic Technologies
Zircoa's new management has recreated the company's early energy and innovative spirit.
Zircoa was founded more than 60 years ago as an entrepreneurial venture, and has since been owned by large corporations like Pickens Mather, Diamond Shamrock, Corning, Didier/RHI and ANH Refractories. Zircoa flourished during most of this time, creating a high profile for itself in the ceramic industry. At the bottom of the 2008 recession, then-General-Manager Ronne Proch assembled a team of key employees and investors and purchased the business from ANH in mid-2010.
The new team quickly instituted many initiatives, including lean processing and the development of new materials and processes, and revitalized sales and marketing efforts. The result has been a renewal of the entrepreneurial spirit, spurring significant growth in products and markets. With the recent formation of Zircoa GmbH, replacing Didier/RHI as its representative for many of Zircoa’s products to EMEA, Zircoa has established a firm beachhead for its new initiatives in that area.
The new venture’s product line will include Zircoa’s line of high-temperature zirconia refractories, as well as products from associated companies that make other advanced ceramic materials. Zircoa GmbH is seeking additional associated advanced ceramic product lines to supplement its core offerings. The new sales/distribution office in Tambov, Russia, may lead to the establishment of a local zirconia manufacturing hub using Zircoa’s technology and new technology that is being developed in cooperation between Zircoa and the internationally recognized Nanocenter at Tambov State University.
Strategic market initiatives, led by Tim Leitzel, sales and marketing manager, have focused Zircoa’s growing resources and renewed spirit on expanding into emerging markets. In addition, global sustainability initiatives are driving processes to greater efficiencies. This opens the door for Zircoa to step in and assist in applications such as crystal growth, pollution control and carbon black manufacturing. High-quality and lean manufacturing also opens new doors for global expansion to the company’s traditional lines of refractory liners, crucibles, nozzles, slide gates and other high-temperature applications. Known historically for the quality of its zirconia products, Zircoa’s new discoveries will only enhance its recent growth.
New Initiatives for Growth
Zircoa has always devoted significant resources to R&D. However, these efforts were largely reactive rather than proactive. With the new ownership’s philosophical changes, the focus has moved to innovation, and the two newest products address two very large markets.
The first is a tough yet low-cost zirconia material called Black Diamond (see Figures 1-2 and Table 1). The material has good fracture toughness and is hard and dense, comparing favorably in most aspects to Y-TZP material (particularly in cost). It is expected to find application in areas as diverse as mud pump liners, can tooling and grinding media beads.
The second product is a low-cost NOx/NH3 sensor designed using the company’s patented pulse discharge technique. Zircoa has found a way to make an improved variety of typical YSZ sensor materials into low-cost, fast (< 1 sec) and sensitive gas partial pressure sensors (< 1 ppm). The combination of material innovation, signal analysis and substrate modification have provided a breakthrough that meets the low-cost, ruggedness, design flexibility, response time and sensitivity requirements established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), California Air Resources Board (CARB ) and the engine builders (exceeding the EPA’s 2010 Tier 4 threshold performance regulations). The zirconia-based material and system are designed to be produced in a “drop-in” configuration that does not require any engine modification and reduces the urea back-filling required by many diesel engines, sufficient to cover the cost of the product in urea savings alone.
Figure 3 demonstrates the simplicity of the design and concept. The product is designed to be used in all internal combustion engines from off-road diesels and natural gas city buses to stationary gas engines. The potential for this breakthrough is expected to be even greater for these ceramic products than zirconia oxygen sensors were 25 years ago.
The sensor systems are currently under evaluation in an EPA/engine-company-supported program at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), and commercially usable product is expected to be available by mid-2015. The volume requirements for this product are enormous, and reduction in NOx emissions (smog producer and significant greenhouse gas component) is a very important focus for the EPA and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). No systems were previously available that met all of the criteria for commercial and environmental acceptance (e.g., response, sensitivity, ease of use and cost) mandated by the 2010 EPA guidelines. Zircoa’s solution meets all of these needs, and the company is scaling up production to meet the requirements.
Zircoa’s new management has recreated the company’s early energy and innovative spirit. Recent growth indicates that the company is destined for a leading role in the ceramic marketplace.
For more information, visit www.zircoa.com.