Ceramic Industry

Advancing Technology Through Quality

November 29, 2002
For CeraMem Corp., a high level of product quality is key to achieving its goals of technology innovation.

A crossflow membrane element developed by CeraMem Corp. and currently being commercialized. The membrane measures 5.66 in. in diameter x 34 in. long, with a 115 ft. 2 membrane area.
For CeraMem Corp., located in Waltham, Mass., a high level of quality control isn’t optional—it’s mandatory. The company’s primary purpose is to use Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and other U.S. government funding to seed the formation of new businesses based on technology innovation in areas such as ceramic and polymeric membrane chemistries, ceramic gas particulate filters, air and water pollution control, ceramic materials technology (e.g., nanoparticle synthesis and chemical gas sensors), and heterogeneous catalysis. It is also actively seeking partners for commercialization of a series of patented, low-cost ceramic membrane technologies, including microfiltration, ultrafiltration, nanofiltration, pervaporation and gas separation products. CeraMem’s efforts have resulted in a significant amount of success, with 2002 sales expected to reach $3.5 million. However, achieving such lofty aspirations demands strict attention to detail and the ability to characterize materials with 100% certainty. “We have to know that our data is quantitatively reliable and reproducible so that we can have credibility with our customers. When we present a new technology, it has to have the qualities that we claim it does, or we’re out of business,” says Dr. Michael C.J. Bradford, director of Heterogeneous Catalysis Research for CeraMem.

A crossflow membrane module (including element and housing) showing the sealing method for a high surface area membrane element.

Choosing the Right Tools

As one would expect in such a heavily R&D-focused organization, CeraMem uses a variety of tools to control and analyze quality. However, these tools aren’t just arbitrarily selected to fill lab space; rather, each instrument and piece of equipment is carefully chosen to meet a specific analysis need. For example, the company has been working on a project over the past couple of years to develop a ceramic catalyst for the gasification of carbonaceous materials. One of the key requirements for the catalyst is that it has to have a high surface area. “When we began working on this project, we knew we would need the ability to routinely analyze our materials to obtain their surface area in a statistically relevant way that would allow us to guide our research toward the final product,” Bradford explains. After doing some research and talking with other people in the industry, the company decided to purchase a NOVA® 3200 high speed surface area and pore size analyzer from Quantachrome Instruments, Boynton Beach, Fla. The instrument performs fully automated multi-point Brunauer, Emmett and Teller (B.E.T.) analysis, and it eliminates the need for helium with its patented NO Void Analysis™ (NOVA) technology. It enables researchers to prepare up to four samples by vacuum or flow methods simultaneously with sample analysis—at different temperatures if required—and it can be used to analyze up to 200 data points (100 adsorption points and 100 desorption points) on as many as three samples in less than 20 minutes. It can also be used with most non-corrosive adsorbate gases—including argon, CO2 and light hydrocarbons. The instrument enables researchers to get information “on the fly” by uploading the data to a PC from the current analysis, and it also allows them to verify performance with a built-in calibration syringe. “We’ve found the instrument to be straightforward and simplistic, and it provides the level of quality we need,” Bradford says. Other instruments in the company’s repertoire include several gas chromatographs from SRI Instruments, Torrance, Calif. As with the surface area analyzer, these instruments were selected to perform specific tasks relevant to the company’s research projects. “Quality control and quality analysis play very big roles at CeraMem, and we need to have the right tools to ensure the success of each project. We regularly have to look for different types of equipment as new needs arise,” Bradford says.

Figure 1. An example of a quality control chart developed for calibration of the NOVA 3200 instrument.

Criteria for Quality

When CeraMem decides to purchase a new instrument, it does so based on six key criteria:
1. The ability of the instrument to fit the application
2. The instrument’s cost
3. The quality of the instrument’s design
4. Ease of use (including any requirements for operator certification)
5. Ease of maintenance by the company’s personnel (outside of any service contract)
6. The service provision or responsiveness of the instrument manufacturer, and the manufacturer’s accessibility
While cost is one of the company’s most important criteria, price doesn’t necessarily dictate the final purchase. “Initially, we take cost out of the picture and look at all the other factors,” explains Bradford. “We try to competitively evaluate all of the different products and identify the leading products based on the company’s reputation, its sales and service staff, and the quality of the instrument. Then we look at the benefit-to-cost ratio of having the instrument in our facility. Instead of choosing the lowest cost instrument, we select the one that gives us the best benefit based on all of the criteria.”

The Importance of Calibration

Any new instrument CeraMem purchases must meet high levels of accuracy and repeatability, but the results obtained with quality control instruments can often drift over time. To ensure that its test results remain accurate, the company regularly calibrates its equipment using known independent standards, such as those from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). For example, to ensure that the NOVA 3200 is consistently obtaining accurate surface area measurements, the company periodically uses the instrument to analyze a series of standard materials from both Quantachrome and NIST. “The known surface areas of these materials range from 3 to 300 m2/gram, or two orders of magnitude,” explains Bradford. “We use the instrument to analyze all of these known samples about once every two months, and that provides us with a statistical analysis of how close we are, over a two-order-of-magnitude range, to the known value. We then use that information to compile a quality control chart (see Figure 1). If the analysis results aren’t within the known statistical limits, then we have to troubleshoot the instrument. On the other hand, if the results are routinely within those known limits, then we know our data on a given project is credible.”

Meeting Future Quality Goals

So far, almost all of the company’s quality control and quality analysis efforts have been laboratory projects focused on developing innovative new technologies. However, that may soon change once its new joint venture gets off the ground. Called “DuraMem,” the new company will manufacture and sell ceramic membrane filters and crossflow modules—giving CeraMem an opportunity to continue its quality commitment on a much larger scale. “We’re still looking for an industrial partner for this joint venture, but we’re already manufacturing prototype ceramic microfiltration and ultrafiltration membranes and crossflow filters,” says Bradford. “Because we haven’t really reached the full manufacturing stage, we check 100% of all of our prototype products before they are shipped to customers. Of course, that won’t work on a manufacturing scale, but we envision going to full lot testing once we get to full production.” Bradford admits that many of the quality control and quality analysis procedures for the new joint venture will have to be developed later, once full manufacturing is under way. But he’s already thinking ahead. “Our quality assurance procedures are all in the form of written documentation right now, but we hope to soon transition them into a statistical process control format so that we’ll have an optimized system once we’re in full production. We’ll probably purchase new instruments as well,” Bradford says.

For More Information

For more information about CeraMem, contact the company at 12 Clematis Ave., Waltham, MA 02453; (781) 899-4495; fax (781) 899-6478; e-mail ceramem@ceramem.com; or visit http://www.ceramem.com. Additional information about the company's ceramic membrane products can be obtained from Bruce Bishop at (781) 899-4495, ext. 30, e-mail bishop@ceramem.com.

For more information about the NOVA 3200, contact Quantachrome Instruments at 1900 Corporate Dr., Boynton Beach, FL 33426; (800) 989-2476 or (561) 731-4999; fax (561) 732-9888; e-mail QC.sales@quantachrome.com; or visit http://www.quantachrome.com.

For more information about SRI Instruments, contact the company at 20720 Earl St., Torrance, CA 90503; (310) 214-5092; fax (310) 214-5097; e-mail sales@srigc.com; or visit http://www.srigc.com.