Advanced Ceramics in Demand

December 1, 2009
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Following a few years of contracting demand in the early 2000s, the advanced ceramics industry rebounded from 2003 to 2007. Going forward, growth will decelerate as the industry faces recessionary macroeconomic conditions in the short term. Further restraining demand will be lower requirements for body armor, as the current administration’s goal is to significantly reduce military involvement in Iraq. Nevertheless, advanced ceramics will continue to penetrate applications such as capacitors, cutting tools, orthopedic joint implants and membranes, where they are valued for their favorable performance characteristics.

Table 1.

Challenges and Opportunities

The use of advanced ceramics is highly dependent on the health of the electronic components and electrical equipment industries, which combined accounted for 43% of total demand in 2007 (see Table 1). Although Asia dominates the electronics industry, opportunities still exist in the U.S. Growth will arise due to materials substitution as ceramics gain use over alternatives, as is the case with some capacitors. However, the U.S. electronic components industry is projected to remain sluggish, limiting further advanced ceramics demand.

Growth in electrical equipment will remain favorable, albeit decelerating from rates achieved during the 2002 to 2007 period. Permanent magnets will benefit from an acceleration in small car production, where these products are commonly used. Maintenance requirements of the large installed base of insulators will also provide opportunities.

The medical product market will post the most rapid gains, benefiting from the increasing utilization of ceramics in joint implants and dental procedures. Demographic trends will also provide opportunities, as older individuals tend to require more joint replacements or dental work. In joint replacement, ceramics are valued because they are chemically inert, promote tissue and bone growth, and are not susceptible to attack by the body’s immune system. In dental applications, ceramics are valued for their opalescence.

Other markets set to post above-average gains include chemicals and plastics, environmental, industrial machinery and transportation equipment. In the chemicals and plastics market, the fastest growth will arise in membranes, with growth accruing due to ceramics’ performance advantages such as toleration of high temperatures and harsh chemicals, promoting their use in difficult processing conditions. Demand will also be driven by increasing penetration into specialty applications such as natural gas purification.

In the environmental market, pollution control is the largest application, but interest in reducing the country’s dependence on foreign oil will also provide opportunities. Emerging applications include the use of ceramic bearings in wind turbines and ceramic materials in photovoltaic modules. Ceramics continue to gain use in various industrial machinery applications, such as cutting tools, as end users realize the performance advantages of these materials. Limiting further gains will be a deceleration in the industrial machinery industry. Stricter emissions standards on diesel engines will provide growth for ceramic filters in the transportation equipment market as well.

Figure 1. Advanced ceramics demand by product, 2007.

Demand by Product

Monolithic ceramics (unreinforced ceramics cast directly into final form) represent the dominant and best-established segment of the industry (see Figure 1). However, ceramic matrix composites and ceramic coatings will achieve the more rapid gains, primarily due to their favorable performance characteristics, such as enhanced strength and durability.

Monolithic ceramic products include electrical equipment and electronic components, catalyst supports, body armor, filters, wear parts, medical products, cutting tools, membranes and engine parts. Electrical equipment and electronic components are by far the dominant monolithic products, accounting for half of total monolithic ceramics demand in 2007. Catalyst supports are also significant, accounting for 18% of total 2007 demand.

Major markets for ceramic matrix composites include industrial machinery and transportation equipment. Applications in the industrial machinery market include cutting tools and wear parts. Engine components, rocket thrust chambers and nozzles, and heat-resistant tiles for the space shuttle and other spacecraft are among the transportation equipment applications. Other end uses include use in sporting goods (e.g., golf clubs).

Figure 2. Advanced ceramics demand by type, 2007.

Demand by Type

Demand for advanced ceramics is forecast to advance 3.8% per year to $12.6 billion in 2012. Cordierite, zirconate, silicon nitride, titanate and ferrite ceramics will record above-average gains, while alumina will remain the workhorse of the industry (see Figure 2). Cordierite and silicon nitride will benefit from their use in diesel particulate filters. Titanates, as well as cordierites and others, will experience growth due to use in the environmental market. Technological advances in medical products will provide opportunities for zirconates.

Ferrites will benefit from their use in motor vehicles, where production is expected to accelerate from rates posted between 2002 and 2007. Aluminas will retain their dominant position in the industry due to their favorable performance and cost profile. Other advanced ceramics, such as silicon carbide, boron carbide and beryllia, will post below-average gains due to a variety of reasons, including one or more of the following: environmental concerns, competition from other ceramics and a reliance on slower-growing markets.

Ceramics can be produced from numerous materials. Advanced ceramics-unlike traditional ceramic products such as flooring and wall tile, pottery, china, and refractory brick-are manufactured from materials with very high purity levels and are fired (sintered) at considerably higher temperatures to yield products with greater hardness, improved resistance to heat and chemicals, and lower thermal and electrical conductivity. As such, advanced ceramics are higher value-added materials than traditional ceramics, which are essentially commodity items that are more subject to price competition. Thus, advanced ceramics tend to compete more often on performance.

The two major families of advanced ceramics are oxides (e.g., alumina, beryllia and zirconium) and non-oxides (e.g., carbides and nitrides). The common thread among oxides is the presence of oxygen in conjunction with the base mineral element, such as in zirconia and oxygen to form zirconium. Non-oxides utilize an element other than oxygen in their manufacture. Carbides (e.g., boron carbide, silicon carbide, titanium carbide and tungsten carbide), for example, have a carbon constituent, while nitrides (e.g., aluminum nitride, boron nitride and silicon nitride) utilize nitrogen.

Technological advances in nanostructured (or sub-micron) ceramic powders continue to develop in the advanced ceramics industry. Ceramic particles of less than 100 nanometers offer producers a means to improve product performance, reduce costs and heighten product differentiation. For example, nanoscale ceramics frequently have improved electrical conductivity, magnetic, thermal, optical and hardness characteristics.

Production costs can be reduced through faster sintering at lower temperatures, which reduces energy costs, and through more exacting product molding, which reduces machining costs-a huge factor in the industry. The greatest application of nanotechnology in advanced ceramics has thus far been in electronic components and ceramic coatings, although gains are being made in the medical product market.

The foregoing information was based on Advanced Ceramics, a report published by The Freedonia Group, Inc. For additional details regarding the advanced ceramics market, contact The Freedonia Group at 767 Beta Dr., Cleveland, OH 44143; (440) 684-9600; fax (440) 646-0484; or visit www.freedoniagroup.com.

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