Dig In: 2019 Ceramics Expo Conference
Attendees of the Ceramics Expo Conference will have an opportunity to sink their teeth into topics ranging from raw materials and process improvements to next-generation advanced ceramic applications.
Every spring, the ceramic community gathers for an annual smorgasbord of exhibits, learning sessions and networking opportunities. Yes, I’m talking about Ceramics Expo, which will be held April 30-May 1 in Cleveland, Ohio. (For additional details regarding the event, including special activities and exhibition highlights, see “Technical Ceramic Solutions at Ceramics Expo 2019.”)
While the timeframe of this year’s event has been reduced from three days to two, the Ceramics Expo Conference will continue to provide myriad high-level learning opportunities. Attendees will be able to sink their teeth into topics ranging from raw materials and process improvements to next-generation advanced ceramic applications. I hope you’re hungry; let’s dig in!
Turbulent Raw Materials Landscape
Raw materials are indisputably a vital component in any successful product, particularly when sophisticated end-use applications dictate specific properties. On Tuesday morning, Michael Silver, CEO of American Elements, will discuss “Threats to the Global Advanced Ceramics Supply Chain in the 21st Century—Challenges and Solutions.”
According to Silver, China has undertaken several policies in an attempt to dominate the market for many raw materials. “In the late ’90s, China came up with the clever strategy of charging customers less in China than outside of China for the many metal oxides they hold the majority of global reserves for, many of which are the basis for critical ceramic formulas,” he says. “China has also executed on a very intelligent strategy of acquiring sources in South America, Africa and Australia in exchange for infrastructure loans and development, creating sovereign monopolies beyond its borders.”
These strategies have made it difficult for companies in the U.S., EU and Japan to compete in today’s global marketplace. In addition, instability in Africa resulting from various hostile conflicts has resulted in increased pricing, forcing “large ceramics producers to ‘go long’ on raw material inventories, preventing preferred just-in-time deliveries and thereby increasing costs,” Silver explains.
Regions that want to compete with China should refocus some of their own policies, says Silver. “The U.S., EU and Japan need to be as forward thinking as China and establish their own direct mining sources and relationships to protect the ceramics industries in their respective countries,” he says. “I met with President Trump at the White House this spring to discuss these issues. He understands the importance of this approach to U.S. ceramic manufacturers.”
Chris Duchene, global vice president of Supply Chain for CoorsTek, Inc., will take part in a panel discussion on Tuesday afternoon focusing on “Efficiently Sourcing Raw Materials at Optimum Quality and Cost.” He sees factors ranging from regulations and geopolitical issues to increasing market demand affecting the availability of key materials such as alumina, silicon carbide, silicon nitride, rare earths, and more.
Regardless of the cause, raw material scarcities can negatively impact a manufacturer’s operations, whether directly impacting the bottom line through increased materials/freight costs and bloated inventories, or with less obvious issues related to personnel and other resources that must react to shortages. “It can be difficult at times when we come across material shortages, both from a raw material demand and, on the flip side, our customer demand,” he says. “Those two pinching our operations in a planning perspective can create some havoc and impact our customer order fill rates and on-time delivery.”
When attempting to alleviate raw materials availability issues, Duchene suggests first working with the current supplier base to explore if the challenges can be mitigated or if an alternate type of material could potentially be used. “We turn first to those incumbent suppliers to try to cultivate the interdependencies between the companies and create a different dialogue than maybe we’ve had in the past,” he explains.
If a ceramic manufacturer finds that it simply must identify a new material supplier, it’s vital to fully understand not only the complete requirements of that material, but what expectations need to be met by the supplier. In addition to material properties, some of the factors to consider include potential costs (direct or indirect), possible constraints, and any additional benefits that might go beyond the initial goal of alleviating the scarcity issue.
“We create some cross-functional teams in order to make sure we’ve got a full perspective on what our requirements are,” says Duchene. “Then we start to do some strategic sourcing activity to look at potential suppliers across the different geographies of the globe that can potentially meet our requirements.”
Once a new potential supplier is identified, dozens of additional evaluations must be made. An inexhaustive list of factors to be considered includes: customer requirements, cost/benefit calculations, product quality, impact or alleviation of trade regulations, material qualifying (internally and with the customer), potential production locations, logistics issues, time-to-market estimates, pricing, and many more.
However, despite the seemingly daunting amount of effort required, having a strong relationship with key suppliers can provide many benefits beyond reliable availability, including access to their market insights and notifications regarding when shortages could potentially occur. “When you have a tighter relationship with your key 80 suppliers, or high-spend suppliers, that connective tissue between the organizations can give you some advance warning and alerts,” says Duchene. “This is a key aspect of managing a supply base, particularly when you have a high dependency on a raw material.”
Evolving Electrification Opportunities
Advanced ceramics are increasingly being recognized as solutions for various challenges facing a broad range of high-tech industries. A key example can be found in electrification efforts in the transportation sector. Due to concerns regarding climate change, consumers are looking for opportunities to reduce their carbon footprints. They recognize that their cars emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), so they’d like to consider alternatives. However, they also want to be able to drive those cars for long distances—which has traditionally been a challenge for the energy storage systems in electric vehicles (EVs).
On Tuesday afternoon, Asma Sharafi, research engineer in Energy Storage Research for Ford Motor Co., will address these challenges during a session on “Examining Cutting-Edge Applications for Ceramics for Energy Storage.” While lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion, or LIBs) are the go-to technology for today’s EV energy storage systems, Sharafi explains, they falter when attempting to meet new requirements such as the higher energy densities required for longer drives. But ceramics, which currently find use in conventional Li-ion batteries as cathode electrode materials and separator coatings, might be able to help.
“Considerable research on high-performance anodes is under way,” says Sharafi. “There are primarily four different types of anode materials that could replace commercial graphite anodes: pyrolytic porous carbon, alloy-based anodes, conversion-type anodes, and metallic Li. Among these candidates, metallic Li is believed to offer the highest increase in performance owing to its high theoretical capacity (3,860 mAh.g-1) and its low potential (0 V vs. Li+/Li).”
There’s a catch, though, as Li dendrites form upon pairing with the organic liquid electrolyte. And here’s where the ceramic comes in. “One strategy to enable the use of metallic Li anodes includes the development of solid-state batteries (SSBs) employing ceramics as a solid-state electrolyte (SSE),” Sharafi explains. “The use of ceramic SSEs has drawn significant attention due to their combination of high ionic conductivity and stability against metallic Li. Ceramics with adequate mechanical properties can suppress Li dendrite penetration and provide a wider voltage stability window to enable positive electrodes with higher voltages simultaneously.”
While small devices like personal fitness monitors are currently powered by SSBs that incorporate ceramics, considerable work needs to be done in order to scale up the technology for EVs. “Acquiring a fundamental understanding of the underlying mechanisms that control the high interfacial impedance and maximum tolerable current density could guide future efforts to further accelerate the development of solid-state electrolytes and their integration into SSBs for their use in EVs,” says Sharafi.
Speaking of significant scale-up, what about development efforts for electrified airplanes? According to Ajay Misra, deputy director of Research and Engineering for NASA Glenn Research Center, researchers are exploring electrified propulsion in both all-electric and hybrid systems for a range of aircraft sizes. In fact, the urban air mobility (UAM) segment (think air taxi with up to four passengers) could lead the way.
“Many organizations engaged in aircraft manufacturing and research have developed roadmaps with notional timeframes for the gradual introduction of electrified propulsion starting with UAM and 10-passenger thin-haul aircraft in 2025, 40-50 passenger regional aircraft in 2030, and single-aisle 100+ passengers in 2035 or beyond,” says Misra. On Wednesday afternoon, he will discuss “Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Opportunities for the Emerging Electrified Aircraft Market.”
Advanced ceramics could potentially come into play throughout the electrified aircraft, according to Misra, and development work on a number of different fronts is under way. Since these large electric motors need to produce significant power densities, they’ll require high-temperature superconductor materials such as oxide ceramics and magnesium diboride. In addition, polymer-ceramic nanocomposites incorporating boron nitride additives are being explored since they are electrically insulating at high temperatures while also offering high thermal conductivity.
Silicon carbide (SiC) semiconductors could find utility in the planes’ power electronics. While SiC can operate at higher temperatures than silicon semiconductors, packaging these components can be challenging. “High-temperature packaging is enabled by many material advances such as joining techniques and advanced thermal interface materials,” says Misra. “Producing defect-free silicon carbide semiconductors on a commercial scale would be another area of research.”
Transmitting the high megawatts of power required for the aircraft means that heavy, large-diameter copper cables are involved. Using high-voltage cables instead would alleviate the weight issue, but insulating these cables then becomes a challenge—or, depending on your perspective, an opportunity. “The insulation materials are expected to be a combination of polymer and ceramic or just ceramics,” Misra says. “Considerable development effort is needed to advance the state of ceramic insulation technology for high-voltage transmission cables in the aircraft.”
These electrified aircraft will of course need to store energy, and Li-based batteries incorporating ceramics are used here as well. Compared to state-of-the-art EVs, according to Misra, the batteries’ specific energy will need to increase two-fold for a UAM and by a factor of at least three to four for larger planes.
Fuel cells (proton exchange membrane and solid oxide) are another option for energy storage, assuming work can be done to increase the power densities. As ceramics are heavily involved in solid oxide fuel cells, developments here could also provide opportunities for growth.
Progress with Additive Manufacturing
Additive manufacturing has been a buzzword in the ceramic industry for years, but widespread adoption has been elusive. On Wednesday morning, Stuart MacLachlan, head of R&D for Lucideon, will take part in a discussion focusing on “Examining Advances in Additive Manufacturing Techniques and Materials.”
According to MacLachlan, the potential benefits of additive manufacturing for ceramic manufacturers could be huge: reduced costs, process simplification, design flexibility, the ability to mass-customize products, and shorter development cycles and lead times. “A lot of companies are attracted by the potential to simplify some of their processes,” he says. “At the moment, manufacturing ceramic parts involves several process steps and requires tools and molds. Additive manufacturing does allow you, potentially, to adopt a tool-free approach. This means manufacturers could reduce the part count number, and they can make features they can’t make using traditional processes.”
Kayleigh Porter, Additive Ceramic Development lead for HRL Laboratories, LLC, who will be giving a presentation on the topic, agrees. “Additive manufacturing of ceramics offers functional prototypes, design freedom, and rainbow design iterations to engineers,” she says. “When taken advantage of, it can quicken the pace of developments in all ceramic-based industries.”
That all sounds great, so why has the adoption of additive manufacturing in ceramics lagged behind that of metals and polymers? The answer will most likely come as no surprise: ceramics can be tricky. “It is a matter of developing the processes to suit the unique properties of the ceramic,” explains MacLachlan. “No one ideal process suits every ceramic material and application. Some processes give good dimensional resolution but low-density parts. Others perhaps require a long burn-off period to get rid of a binder. People have to understand the processes and the range of materials and properties you can get out of them, and then explore where the economics would be beneficial to them.”
Since advanced ceramics have such special technical requirements, manufacturers need to come to the additive manufacturing table with a specific end product in mind; it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. “It’s very challenging to implement new technologies, especially when the initial cost of development can be quite high,” says Porter. “You need a very specific application to compete with a traditional process like injection molding, where additive manufacturing’s design freedom and faster lead time can compare with the long lead time but final low cost of injection molding.”
While progress has been somewhat slow, it is being made. Over the past couple of years, many companies have developed additive manufacturing equipment and technologies specifically for ceramic processing—and, perhaps more importantly, ceramic manufacturers have launched products that have been produced via additive manufacturing. “It’s a bit chicken and egg,” says MacLachlan. “Once people start to see what’s being done and begin to understand the processes, they’ll begin to explore how their applications could benefit.”
It’s this paradigm shift that could ultimately provide the breakthrough that additive manufacturing is looking for in the ceramic industry. One by one, engineers will hopefully see the possibilities and make the effort to explore options for an existing product, with the domino effect being that they begin to think of additive manufacturing from the very beginning of their product design processes.
“Currently, ceramic manufacturers are designing for an end goal using another manufacturing system,” says Porter. “But once people start designing parts using the freedom that ceramic additive manufacturing allows, perhaps it will start reprograming their mindset. Long term, it would help provide statistical data for a printing production facility, and as expertise spreads, it would become cheaper and more accessible to all.”
For additional details regarding these and other session topics at the Ceramics Expo Conference, visit www.ceramicsexpousa.com/conference.