by Chris Woodford. Last updated: June 18, 2016.
The major periods of civilization, such as the Stone Age and Bronze Age, were named for the materials that dominated them, and it may seem surprising that there has never been a "Ceramics Age." Yet almost any age might have qualified for this title. Archeologists have found evidence of primitive ceramic manufacture dating back to around 24,000 B.C.E., but those most modern of materials, the silicon chip and the catalytic converter, are also examples of ceramics. The modern era is as much a ceramics age as any other. Let's find out more about ceramics and how they work!
Photo: A ceramic Percy Pig piggy bank. It started life as a soft piece of clay molded to shape, fired hard in a pottery kiln, then painted with bright colors.
What are ceramics?
Photo: Porcelain plates are very familiar examples of ceramics, but there are other, much more surprising uses of ceramics too.
Ceramics once referred purely to pottery and to articles made by firing materials extracted from Earth. Today, the term has a much broader definition. Ceramics are generally thought of as inorganic and nonmetallic solids with a range of useful properties, including very high hardness and strength, extremely high melting points, and good electrical and thermal insulation.
The best-known ceramics are pottery, glass, brick, porcelain, and cement. But the general definition of a ceramic—a nonmetallic and inorganic solid—is so broad that it covers a much wider range of materials. At one end of the scale, ceramics include simple materials such as graphite and diamond, made up from different crystalline arrangements of the element carbon. But at the other end of the scale, complex crystals of yttrium, barium, copper, and oxygen make up the advanced ceramics used in so-called high-temperature superconductors (materials with almost no electrical resistance). Most ceramics fall somewhere between these extremes. Many are metal oxides, crystalline compounds of a metal element and oxygen. Others are silicides, borides, carbides, and nitrides, respectively made from silicon, boron, carbon, and nitrogen. Some of the most advanced ceramic materials are combinations of ceramics and other materials known as ceramic matrix composites (CMCs).
Properties of ceramics
Ceramics are best known as brittle solids particularly suited for withstanding high temperatures but, in fact, the different materials used in ceramics can give them a wide range of properties. The classic properties of ceramics include durability, strength and brittleness, high electrical and thermal resistance, and an ability to withstand the damaging effects of acids, oxygen, and other chemicals because of their inertness (chemical unreactivity). But not all ceramics behave in this way. For example, graphite is a very soft ceramic and conducts electricity well, whereas diamond is a very good conductor of heat. Ceramics called ferrites are particularly good conductors of electricity and superconductors have almost no electrical resistance at all. Ceramic matrix composites, made by embedding fibers of a strengthening material in what is known as a ceramic matrix, are not at all brittle.
Photo: Silicon and carbon fuse to form silicon carbide power (left), which can be made into a hard and hard-wearing ceramic called silicon carbide that can survive high temperatures. It has many applications, from drills and cutting tools to components (middle, right) that can withstand high temperatures in gas-turbine engines that would melt ordinary metal parts. Ceramic components are also used in ordinary car engines for the same reason. Picture by Warren Gretz courtesy of US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) (picture id 6307388).
The properties of a particular ceramic depend not just on the materials from which it is made but also on the way they are joined together—in other words, on its crystalline structure. Diamond is strong because all of its carbon atoms are bonded tightly to other carbon atoms. Graphite (such as that used in pencil "leads") shears because it is made up from different layers. Although the carbon atoms are tightly bonded within a given layer, the different layers are held together only by much weaker bonds. China clay (also called kaolin) behaves in a similar way to graphite, with its constituent aluminum, silicon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms tightly bonded into flat sheets. But the weak bonds between those sheets are easily broken when water surrounds them and it is this that makes wet clay so easy to mold. When china clay is fired, heat removes the water, and the chemicals inside the clay rearrange themselves into crystals of aluminum silicate tightly bonded by silicate glass, which is overall very much stronger.
How ceramics are made
Photo: Ceramic floor tiles get their hardness and durability from being fired. Picture by Michael Sandberg courtesy of US Navy.
Firing is the process by which ceramics have traditionally been made; indeed, the word "ceramic" can be traced back to a Sanskrit word meaning "to burn." Simple ceramics such as bricks and certain types of glass are still made by processes that would be recognized by people who lived thousands of years ago. Just as in ancient times, today's pottery is made by digging clay from the ground, mixing it with water to make it flexible, shaping it on a wheel or in a mold, and then firing it in a kiln. Some of today's processes are more sophisticated than the techniques of past times. Machines have long been used in processes such as extrusion (forcing a material into shape by squeezing it like toothpaste through a shaped tool), jiggering (laying the material automatically into a rotating mold), or hot pressing (forcing a powdered form of the ceramic into a mold then simultaneously heating it and pressing it to fuse the material into shape).
The latest industrial ceramics sometimes demand more advanced production processes. Extremely tough ceramics made of silicon nitride are made by a method called reaction bonding. This involves forming silicon powder into the desired shape then heating it with nitrogen gas. Because the silicon powder already occupies the same volume as the finished product, grains of silicon nitride can form only by fusing together tightly.
Types of clay and their common ceramic uses
The US Geological Survey lists six types of clay mined in the United States: common clay, kaolin (China clay), bentonite, ball clay, fuller's Earth, and fire clay, and each has a number of different uses:
- Common clay is mostly used for bricks, cement, and aggregate.
- Kaolin is widely used for making glossy paper.
- Bentonite has a variety of industrial uses, including drilling mud and foundary sand, and is also found in household products that absorb pet waste.
- Ball clay is a high quality clay prized for its use in ceramics, sanitaryware, and wall and floor tiles.
- Fuller's Earth is also used for pet-waste products.
- Fire clay is used in refractory (high-temperature) bricks and cement.
The world of modern ceramics
It is difficult to think of an area of modern life that has not been touched by ceramics. Our homes are made from brick walls, held together by cement made from calcium silicates, and glass windows, also made from silica. Inside, the walls are plastered with ceramic gypsum, porcelain bathrooms are decorated with tiles made of clay and talc, and kitchens stacked with pottery and glass have decorative ceramic floor tiles. Clay pipes link our homes to the sewage system and ceramic insulators are essential in connecting them to the electricity grid. Back inside the house, that electricity flows through television sets that contain more ceramic insulators, components such as capacitors and resistors made from ceramics, computers based on silicon chips, magnetic ceramics used in the electric motors of appliances such as vacuum cleaners and food blenders, and piezoelectric ceramics used in tiny headphones and loudspeakers. Telephone calls and cable television signals may be piped to the home through glass fibers, while other kinds of glass fibers keep heat inside the walls and the roof. That heat may itself be provided by a heated ceramic filament, just as lighting comes from glass bulbs or fluorescent tubes.
But ceramics have not just proved useful in everyday situations. The properties of advanced ceramics have made them important for some much more extraordinary applications. For example, the toughened silicon carbide used in hip replacements is designed to be porous so that it stimulates natural bone growth and tissue formation around the artificial joint. Ceramic engine components are used in "lean burn" car engines that combust fuel more cleanly. Catalytic converters, which convert air pollution into less harmful gases, are made from light but strong aluminosilicate ceramics that can withstand the high temperatures generated in car exhausts. The latest generation of lightweight, deep-sea submersibles are being built not from steel, like their predecessors, but from ceramics originally made for defense purposes. One of the most innovative uses of ceramics is a new kind of paint made from a piezoelectric ceramic. Like other piezoelectric materials, this produces a tiny electric current when it undergoes stresses and strains and its Japanese inventors believe it could be used to detect metal failures or even earthquakes.