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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials December 2011/January 2012 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Carl Telford

2011: The Year in Review

In terms of both technology developments and industry activity, 2011 was another year of quiet progress for novel ceramic and metallic materials (NCMMs). In 2011, NCMM technology continued to move forward, with some large players announcing strategic acquisitions, expansions of production facilities, and—in some cases—revenue increases. Advances occurred for NCMMs in electronics, automotive, aerospace, energy, medical, and consumer applications. And in laboratories around the world, researchers continued to improve the properties of a wide range of NCMMs.

Industry Landscape: Changing Hands

At the end of 2011, the multi-billion-dollar NCMM "industry" comprised a number of large players that manufacture a range of advanced materials and components—most notably, advanced ceramics, ceramic-matrix composites (CMCs), and metal-matrix composites (MMCs). Beneath these large players exist many small specialist manufacturers. In 2011, the advanced-ceramics industry continued to evolve as some players divested businesses, and other players acquired businesses to bolster their core capabilities. In purely financial terms, several large NCMM players performed better in 2011 than in 2010. Three examples of players' financial performances and expansion activities follow:

  • In October 2011, ceramics manufacturer Ceradyne (Costa Mesa, California) announced sales of $444 million for the first three quarters of 2011—a significant increase over its sales of $302 million during the same period in 2010. The company also announced the acquisition of specialty-glass producer VIOX Corporation (Seattle, Washington) in January 2011.
  • Corning's (Corning, New York) first-, second-, and third-quarter results for 2011 all marked improvements over those in 2010. For example, Corning's third-quarter sales of $2.1 billion were 30% higher than its sales of $1.7 billion in the third quarter of 2010. The company also announced a $170 million expansion of a manufacturing facility in China in 2011.
  • Perhaps most significantly, ceramics player CoorsTek (Golden, Colorado) strengthened its position as an industry leader during 2011. In September, the company purchased BAE Systems' (London, England) advanced-ceramics business, BAE Systems Advanced Ceramics (Vista, California). In addition, CoorsTek expanded several of its global production facilities during 2011. This activity followed hot on the heels of the company's 2010 acquisition of Saint-Gobain's (Courbevoie, France) advanced-ceramics division.

Materials and Markets: Growth and Development

The NCMM technology area covers a number of interrelated materials technologies. Although these materials have technical similarities in commercial terms, many differences exist. In extremely simple terms, I estimate that the global advanced-structural-ceramics industry had revenues of about $10 billion in 2011. Under the advanced-ceramics umbrella, sales of ceramic-matrix composites accounted for less than $1 billion. Separately, the MMC "industry" had revenues of approximately $100 million globally. MMCs may remain a relatively niche product, but interest in these materials still exists. In 2011, large players 3M (Saint Paul, Minnesota) and Dow Chemical (Midland, Michigan) were among a number of companies that filed patents detailing MMC technology.

Despite the uncertain financial climate of 2011, several market forecasts were fairly optimistic about the near future. In a July 2011 report, Industry Experts (Hyderabad, India) stated that the global market for monolithic ceramics is likely to reach $29.8 billion by the end of 2011. Electronic ceramics account for $17.4 billion of this figure, representing almost 60% of the global market for monolithic-ceramic materials. Research and Markets (Dublin, Ireland) published a new forecast, suggesting that the US market for advanced ceramics is currently worth $10.5 billion and could grow to $14 billion by 2015. And according to a February 2011 report by Global Industry Analysts (San Jose, California): "Stung by lower sales in major end-use industries such as ground transportation and aviation, global MMC market hurtled from high double digit growth rates to lower digits during the global economic recession. However, the market is expected to regain poise to reach US$282.1 million by 2015. Post recession, future growth for the high strength MMCs would be primarily driven by new application in automobiles, microprocessors and other industries."

Automotive Applications: Brakes and Emissions Control

Ceramic brakes remained an important product for NCMM players in 2011—something of a halo product for the structural-ceramics industry. Porsche (Stuttgart, Germany), Audi (Ingolstadt, Germany), Ferrari (Maranello, Italy), Mercedes-Benz (Stuttgart, Germany), and other makers of high-performance vehicles continued to offer ceramic brakes as expensive options. Materials players continued to develop next-generation carbon-fiber-reinforced ceramic-composite materials for brake applications.

Companies continued to develop and roll out NCMMs into other automotive applications in 2011. Morgan Technical Ceramics (MTC; Stourport-on-Severn, England) announced that it was going to produce precision alumina shafts and bearings for use in the water-cooling pumps of an undisclosed manufacturer's hybrid vehicles. Specialty-coatings player Zircotec (Abingdon, England) announced the development of a new zirconia-based coating that can give advanced polymer-matrix-composite materials an ultrasmooth finish; Zircotec targeted this technology at race-car manufacturers, which are interested in improving airflow across their vehicles.

Detailed information about upcoming European Commission (EC) and California Air Resources Board (CARB) legislation—specifically, upcoming EC Euro VI and CARB LEV III regulations—emerged in 2011. Manufacturers of diesel vehicles have their work cut out in meeting these regulations, which are due for introduction in the next few years. Manufacturers of emissions-reduction technologies, such as ceramic diesel-particulate filters (DPFs) and advanced sensors, must ensure their products work effectively and reliably. These regulations may also create opportunities for a range of NCMM players—not only for DPF makers, but also for ceramics players in general. For example, Zircotec announced a new low-cost ceramic coating that it believes will help manufacturers of diesel vehicles. In an 18 April 2011 Zircotec press release, Peter Whyman, Zircotec's sales director, explains, "Euro VI will require manufacturers to further reduce NOx and particulate matter." The press release claims that "the coating provides an attractive option for truck and bus manufacturers challenged by the higher temperatures experienced with new Euro VI emissions regulations and testing methods set to be introduced in late 2013."

Aerospace Applications: Gas-Turbine Evolution

In 2011, the aerospace sector continued to investigate ways of improving aircraft by reducing emissions, increasing efficiency, and increasing levels of safety and reliability. Key players across the value chain—from NCMM producers to engine manufacturers and aircraft makers—looked toward high-performance materials as a way of enabling these improvements. For example, CFM International—a joint venture between Snecma (Courcouronnes, France) and General Electric (GE; Fairfield, Connecticut) subsidiary GE Aviation (Evendale, Ohio)—continued to develop the LEAP-X high-performance turbofan engine, which will feature some CMC components. A GE Aviation plant in Newark, Delaware, will produce CMC components for the new engine.

Interest in thermal-barrier coatings (TBCs) and other materials and technologies that improve aircrafts' resistance to the long-term issues caused by volcanic ash also increased through 2011. Following recent volcanic eruptions, aviation guidelines now suggest that flying in low-ash-density areas is acceptable. Players such as GE, Pratt & Whitney (East Hartford, Connecticut), Honeywell (Morristown, New Jersey), Rolls-Royce (City of Westminster, England), and Praxair (Danbury, Connecticut) continued to develop new TBC materials and processes. Chromalloy (Palm Beach Gardens, Florida) announced a new commercial TBC that can reportedly enhance the performance of gas-turbine engines. R&D activity surrounding new TBCs also grew. For example, researchers at Ohio State University (OSU; Columbus, Ohio) continued to develop new TBCs that can better cope with the presence of ash.

Defense Applications: Armor and High-Performance Vehicles

In 2011, defense applications remained a key driver for the commercial and technical development of NCMMs. DARPA's (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's) testing of the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) in 2011 highlighted the future need for ultra-high-temperature ceramics (UHTCs). And the US military continued to choose ceramic for its body and vehicle armor. According to the Ceradyne website, the company received nine separate orders for armor products—collectively worth over $300 million—during 2011.

Energy: Shale Gas

In the energy sector, some ceramics players—Chinese players in particular—latched onto the trend of producing shale gas and enabling fracking (hydraulic fracturing) processes in the United States, announcing an increase in demand for high-performance ceramic proppant materials. According to a 12 December 2011 Reuters article: "Over the past three years, China has emerged as a go-to source for the engineered spherical pebbles that, like sand, are injected deep underground to help 'prop' open tight shale rocks as part of the controversial fracking process, allowing oil and gas to flow to the surface. U.S. imports of the proppants from China have surged 12-fold since 2008." Not wanting to miss out on the shale action, Imerys (Paris, France) announced the opening of a $60 million ceramic-proppant facility in Andersonville, Georgia, in late 2011.

Electronics: SiC Advances

In the electronics sector, a number of companies continued their development of silicon carbide (SiC) technologies during 2011. Two developments were particularly significant. First, Cree (Durham, North Carolina) announced the world's first commercial SiC MOSFET (metal-oxide-semiconductor-field-effect-transistor) device. The company believes that this sort of device could replace existing silicon devices in some high-power applications—in particular, solar inverters, high-voltage power supplies, and power-conditioning systems for industrial applications. Cree also announced its intention to supply SiC power switches and diodes for use in electric vehicles and wind-energy applications. Second, according to a 12 December 2011 article, Nippon Steel Corporation (Tokyo, Japan) reported the successful development of "six-inch diameter silicon carbide (SiC) single-crystal wafers in a project partially funded through NEDO. SiC wafers help reduce power loses in many high power electronics applications."

Other Applications: Watches and Medical Implants

Other applications for NCMMs that continued to see development through 2011 include ceramics for high-end consumer goods and medical applications. In 2011, despite challenging economic conditions, watch manufacturers continued to roll out new models that included tough, wear-resistant ceramic components. Indeed, one watchmaker—Chanel (Paris, France)—developed a new titanium-ceramic material with a unique visual appearance. At least one significant development in NCMM technology for medical applications also occurred in 2011: According to a 14 June 2011 Reuters article, Johnson & Johnson's (New Brunswick, New Jersey) DePuy Orthopedics (Warsaw, Indiana) gained US Food and Drug Administration approval for a new ceramic-on-metal artificial-hip system following the successful completion of a two-year clinical trial.

Research and Development Activity

In both commercial and academic laboratories, researchers continued to improve the properties and processing of existing NCMMs and, in some cases, even created wholly new materials. For example, researchers at Washington State University (Pullman, Washington) announced the development of MMC coatings for titanium. Titanium has poor wear resistance in comparison with other metals, and the researchers' coating reportedly offers much greater durability. On a completely different level, researchers at the University of California, Irvine (Irvine, California), HRL Laboratories (Malibu, California), and the California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, California) developed what is reportedly the world's lightest structural material. An extremely novel metallic material, it consists of a lattice-like arrangement of tiny hollow metallic tubes.

Traditionally, most NCMM R&D has taken place in established industrial regions, such as the United States, Japan, or Europe. This situation has changed somewhat in recent years. The research landscape at the end of 2011 suggests that a great deal of R&D is ongoing in emerging economies. Researchers published about 8500 papers focusing on advanced ceramic materials in 2011. According to the Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge:

  • The world's top funding agency was the National Natural Science Foundation of China, which funded 7% of all research papers in 2011, followed by the US National Science Foundation (Arlington, Virginia), which funded 1% of all research papers.
  • The top institutions in order of number of papers published in 2011 are the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS; various locations, China), the Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT; Harbin, China), Tsinghua University (Beijing, China), the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow, Russia), Xi'an Jiaotong University (Xi'an, China), Northwestern Polytechnical University (Xi'an, China), the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC; Madrid, Spain), University of Aveiro (Aveiro, Portugal), the Indian Institutes of Technology (various locations, India), Tohoku University (Sendai, Japan), and Pennsylvania State University (University Park, Pennsylvania).

Look for These Developments in 2012

  • I expect to see some industry activity—in particular, acquisitions and joint ventures—involving NCMM players. This activity could well surround the production of materials for aerospace, energy, and electronics applications.
  • I expect to see further activity and progress in the production of CMC components for commercial gas-turbine engines—in particular, for use in commercial aircraft.
  • Activity in the automotive sector will continue to occur in 2012. OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) will improve emissions-reduction technologies. Players will look to develop new brake and clutch materials and components for hybrid and electric vehicles.
  • The automotive and defense sectors will drive the development of high-power SiC-based electronic components.
  • Look for further integration of NCMMs in consumer products such as watches and high-end portable electronics. The strength, scratch resistance, and visual appearance of ceramics, intermetallics, and amorphous metals are advantageous in these applications. These NCMMs could see use in decorative fixtures and fittings—both as monolithic components and as coatings on metal components.
  • Players and researchers will continue to create novel NCMMs using nanomaterials technology. Developments in areas such as carbon-nanotube-reinforced materials, other nanocomposites, and nanostructured materials are likely.
  • Developments in multifunctional composite materials are possible. Such composite materials could, for example, contain sensors to detect damage or perhaps have self-healing functionalities.
  • Manufacturers will continue their efforts to reduce the cost of some NCMMs, but I expect to see at least an equal number of developments in specialty materials for high-performance defense, automotive, and aerospace applications.
  • I expect to see research establishments in China account for an increasing amount of NCMM R&D in 2012.