Ceramic Industry

Big Innovations from Small Science

October 1, 2011

Nanotechnology is changing the rules in ceramics. It's the key to new and enhanced properties that have application across the spectrum of the industry, from piezoelectrics and whitewares to refractories and fuel cells.

Problems long thought to be unsolvable begin to unravel with nanotechnology. Performance that seemed unattainable looms on the horizon. The potential is vast, and the science is delivering results now. In some cases, the news is what nanoscale ceramics can bring to other fields. In other cases, the story is nanotechnology's impact on the ceramic industry.

Nanoceramics on the Rise

A recent industry report by BCC Research captures the big picture on nanoceramics. The 2010 U.S. consumption of advanced and nanoscale powders was estimated at $3.1 billion, growing to $3.4 billion this year and $5.4 billion by 2016. Of that, nanoscale powders account for 17% of current use, growing to 24% by 2016, or around $1.2 billion. That represents about a 40% projected growth. Add to that the fact that more than 80 global companies are profiled in the report for their nanoceramics and advanced ceramics work, and the full scope of the expansion becomes evident.

What's the impetus? Let's look at some of the fields referenced in the BCC report. The study suggests that nanoceramic powders play an important role in applications in the fields of microelectronics, optics, chemistry and environmental products, among others. Applications include structural ceramics; advanced coatings; catalysts and catalyst supports; and optical, electrical, and electronic components.

One of the advantages that is drawing interest in nanoceramics is the ability to dramatically increase the capacity or effectiveness of materials, whether catalysis, strength or electrical exchange. When materials are taken down to the nanoscale, products can accomplish more with less. Why? Nanoscale materials provide greater surface area for chemical reactions or electrical activity, which increases efficiency. In catalytic converters, nanoscale materials have the capacity to absorb more pollutants faster than their micro-scale cousins. In batteries, nanoscale materials increase the available active surface of anodes and diodes, more efficiently enabling the flow of electrons.

Nanocomposites and Nanocoatings

Nanotechnology can take two forms in ceramics. In some cases, components are formed of nanomaterial composites, while nanocoatings are used in other situations. The advantage of nanocomposites is that, as the ingredient particles get smaller, the resulting composite can be tighter and more uniform to a degree not achievable with micro elements. This enhances effectiveness.

Nanocoatings offer even greater opportunity. New or enhanced performance characteristics that can't be achieved in the compound can be added at the surface via nanocoatings, specifically at the points where they're needed. Development is under way in many markets to offer self-cleaning, wear-resistant, corrosion-resistant, abrasion-resistant, UV-resistant and moisture-resistant nanocoatings. Other nanocoatings can improve hardness, thermal performance and flame retardancy.

Conductive coatings will play a role in electronics, and antibacterial coatings will affect markets from medical devices to home products. Whether the need is for a coating that's long-lasting or temporary, visible or optically clear, functional or protective, nanocoatings are likely already in the research commercialization pipeline.

New and improved coating application methods, including vapor deposition, thermal spray, UV-activated and others, allow for the dependable application of nanocoatings to a growing array of ceramic and other surfaces.

Multiple Opportunities

These factors combine to make nanocoatings of growing interest in the ceramic industry. In fact, a research report by Future Markets, Inc. suggests that the world market for nanostructured coatings will rise from its current level of about $131 billion to over $351 billion by 2015. Of course, all that growth will not be in the ceramic industry. However, it's a strong indicator of the potential for advancement.

Several development areas are of particular note. In the refractories industry, nanocoatings could reduce the rate at which the liquid metals corrode through ceramic linings in metal refining furnaces. A thermal coating could fill the microscopic pores in the ceramic with a metal repelling barrier to prevent liquid metal from invading the refractory, protecting it from degradation. Another potential industrial use is in chemical separation processes. The ceramic materials used in the separation process can be enhanced by nanocoatings that increase absorption and residence time.

In the automotive industry, a soil-resistant coating could extend the life and efficiency of catalytic converters by blocking the buildup of soot and carbon on the ceramic honeycomb substrate and active platinum layer. The same thinking could benefit the nano-enabled batteries mentioned previously. In addition, the battery electrode coatings can dramatically expand the effective porosity of the substrate, making it much more efficient. A coating could also make the entire electrode more durable by providing protection from abrasion, corrosion and moisture. In electronics, nanocoatings may offer new avenues for conductivity and insulation. Ultra-thin thermal barriers and thermal conductors are already of immense value.

Nanocoatings are even entering the world of household ceramics. A nanocoating on dishware can reduce friction and create a barrier that protects the surface from scratches, marring, and harsh detergents. Anti-bacterial nanocoatings now seen on medical products and even on household appliances may also find application in ceramic products from sinks to servingware.

Huge Potential

These current advances are just beginning to see widespread commercialization. Nanotechnology is poised to be the powerful change agent for ceramics in virtually every use. Each new innovation-whether it improves a product in ways major or incremental, or results in a completely new nanoceramic product-provides an opportunity to improve performance, reduce costs, and open new market possibilities.

For more information, contact Nanofilm at 10111 Sweet Valley Dr., Valley View, OH 44125; call (216) 447-1199; or visit www.nanofilmtechnology.com.