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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials December 2016/January 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Cassandra Harris

2016: The Year in Review

Many developments occurred in the field of novel ceramic and metallic materials in 2016. Researchers are increasingly developing novel ceramic and metallic materials for use in emerging health-care, energy, and aerospace applications. In particular, 2016 was a strong year for shape-memory alloys (SMAs); players are capitalizing on the unique properties of these materials for use in medical and engineering applications. The energy and construction sectors are major industrial areas in which novel ceramic and metallic materials find use—and 2016 was an active year for the demonstration and commercial application of novel ceramic and metallic materials in civil-infrastructure systems.

Advances in Materials Genomics

The year 2016 saw developments in materials genomics—the application of computational approaches to materials discovery and optimization. The discovery of new materials and materials with specific properties has traditionally required trial-and-error experimentation. However, using machine-learning techniques—informatics-based adaptive design coupled with experiments—researchers are able to predict materials with targeted properties and accelerate materials development. In 2016, researchers determined thousands of materials and material properties using computational methods and included them in databases such as the Materials Project Database, AFLOW, and Open Quantum. New databases are also under development. For example, in 2016, researchers at the Swiss National Science Foundation–funded project MARVEL—a European network of institutions for computational materials sciences led by researchers at école Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Lausanne, Switzerland)—launched a public-access materials database: Materials Cloud. Materials that computational techniques determine are hypothetical. However, researchers are beginning to synthesize and characterize shortlisted materials. For example, in May 2016, researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (New Mexico) synthesized a new nickel titanate SMA with low thermal hysteresis that they predicted using machine-learning techniques.

Materials databases comprise huge quantities of information determined by experimental and computational techniques. The volume and complexity of materials databases is transforming materials science into an information science; developers are creating big-data tools, smart search algorithms, and advanced analytics to help researchers make sense of the data and to data-mine promising materials and properties trends. Efforts are also under way to standardize the communication of material properties. In January 2016, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology's Materials Genome Initiative launched the Materials Resource Registry—an open-source, open-access framework that converts information from existing databases into a common language and aims to support users with data search and discovery. In August 2016, researchers at the Technical University of Aachen, Germany, developed a common language for modeling and simulation tools in use in the study of the microstructures of materials.

Although databases are growing rapidly, scientists estimate that global materials databases comprise only 1% of the properties of existing materials. Incorporating visual data—such as graphs and images from scientific studies, handbooks, and publications—into databases is a major obstacle in producing comprehensive databases. In October 2016, the State University of New York at Buffalo (Buffalo, New York) received $2.9 million in funding from the US National Science Foundation to develop an automated computer laboratory that rapidly collects, interprets, and learns from visual data.

Big data and machine learning are also affecting product development. Generative software has the capability to design potential product solutions using algorithms and product-design criteria such as material composition, product cost, and product function. In 2016, Hack Rod (Woodland Hills, California) used Autodesk's (San Rafael, California) generative-design software—dream catcher—and 3D-printing technology to develop terrain-customized chassis for use in off-road vehicles.

Metal 3D-Printing Developments

Three-dimensional- (3D-) printing technology has the capability to fabricate increasingly complex components and material compositions. Industrial applications of metal 3D-printing are developing, owing to rapidly improving 3D-printing technology and a growing understanding of 3D-printing processes. In September 2016, GE Aviation announced the acquisition of aerospace-component 3D-printing manufacturers Arcam AB (Mölndal, Sweden) and Concept Laser (Lichtenfels, Germany). GE makes extensive use of 3D printing in its aerospace division for the production of metal-alloy fuel nozzles that find use in CFM International's (Cincinnati, Ohio) commercial LEAP jet engines. GE Aviation expects to double its 3D-printing production capabilities in 2017, as a result of Air Asia's placing over 400 firm orders for the Airbus A320neo aircraft—comprising LEAP engines—in September 2016. In April 2016, NASA announced that it is using aerosol-jet printing for creating electronic-circuit boards, and in August 2016, NASA signed a contract with Aerojet Rockethyne (Rancho Cordova, California) to develop a 3D-printed propulsion system for CubeSat small satellites.

In 2016, early adopters of metal 3D-printing technology—such as aerospace and medical-implant companies—were joined by companies from other industries that manufacture metal parts. In February 2016, German engineering-giant Siemens opened a metal 3D-printing production facility in Finspång, Sweden, for the prototyping, manufacturing, and repair of the company's industrial gas-turbine blades and guide vanes. In August 2016, Siemens acquired a majority stake in Materials Solutions Ltd (Worcester, England) that specializes in the application of selective laser melting (SLM) for the fabrication of gas-turbine parts. The jewelry industry is also starting to adopt metal 3D-printing technology. Jewelry producers are already heavy users of stereolithography, digital-light processing, and various other 3D-printing technologies owing to the capability of 3D-printing technology to produce highly detailed molds. However, many jewelers have recently started to 3D print the jewelry itself using SLM technology.

Smart Ceramic and Metallic Materials

The year 2016 saw technological and commercial developments in ceramic and metallic smart materials. Smart materials change their properties in response to environmental stimuli and are under development for a variety of applications. In particular, SMAs—which have superelastic properties and display shape recovery upon heating—saw commercial development in 2016. For example, several biomedical companies invested in early-stage research companies to take their product developments in nitinol SMA orthopedic implants from the engineering phase into the commercialization phase. In July 2016, QuintiQ ('sHertogenbosch, Netherlands) announced the development of a novel composite material comprising a carbon matrix and titanium SMA fibers, which displayed a threefold increase in strength in comparison with that of conventional carbon fiber. The company is developing the composite material for use as an energy-absorbing material in aircraft.

Self-healing materials automatically repair damage to themselves through one of several chemical mechanisms and could find use in a variety of applications. In November 2016, engineers at the University of California, San Diego, developed self-healing magnetic ink—comprising neodymium-alloy microparticles—with potential application in self-healing electronics. Self-healing ceramic and metallic materials are attractive candidate materials for application in the construction industry. In 2016, researchers at the University of British Colombia (Vancouver, Canada) developed a self-healing road in Bangalore, India, of ultra-high-strength self-healing concrete. The concrete—reinforced with hydrophilic polyolefin fibers—is more resistant to cracking than are other materials and also repairs cracks from exposure to rainwater.

High-entropy alloys—which comprise metals in equal percentages—display excellent mechanical properties. In 2016, researchers discovered new high-entropy alloys with novel properties. For example, in March 2016, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, Tennessee) and the University of Finland (Helsinki, Finland) developed a high-entropy alloy more efficient than steel for withstanding nuclear-radiation damage. And in June 2016, researchers at Chalmers University of Technology (Göteborg, Sweden) developed a high-entropy alloy comprising aluminum, cobalt, chromium, iron, and nickel with thermoelectric properties.

Energy Harvesting

The year 2016 saw technological and commercial developments in ceramic and metallic materials for energy-harvesting applications. Energy-harvesting—or energy-scavenging—systems recover waste forms of energy and convert these forms into electrical energy that can power electronic devices or be stored for later use. Heat is ubiquitously present in the environment and is produced in large quantities from industrial processes. Thermoelectric materials could find use in thermoelectric energy-harvesting systems to recover waste heat. However, incorporating thermoelectric materials into industrial systems is challenging. In February 2016, PARC (Palo Alto, California) announced it had secured funding from ARPA-E (Washington, DC) in partnership with Novus Energy (Minneapolis, Minnesota) and Material Dynamics and Devices (Raleigh, North Carolina) to develop its novel coextrusion technology for the fabrication of large-area thermoelectric-generator modules. The coextrusion process—which is reportedly ten times cheaper than conventional manufacturing methods—allows for the deposition of thermoelectric materials on a range of large areas, including the exterior of boilers, or on flexible substrates that wrap around piping.

The year 2016 saw organizations announce their developments of large-scale demonstration programs using piezoelectric materials to harvest vibrational energy from civil-infrastructure systems. In August 2016, the University of Hudersfield's Institute of Railway Research (Hudersfield, England) received funding from the UK Department for Transport to demonstrate piezoelectric sensors at railway crossings that harvest energy from rail-track vibrations caused by approaching trains. In the same month, the California Energy Commission announced funding for the development of pilot projects to install piezoelectric devices in sections of California's roadway system to harvest energy from vehicle traffic. Triboelectric energy-harvesting systems are also generating considerable interest for use in a variety of applications. In 2016, researchers from several academic institutions published research describing the development of triboelectric generators for harvesting ocean energy.

Researchers are developing small-scale energy-harvesting nanogenerators based on piezoelectric, thermoelectric, and triboelectric effects for application in portable, wearable, and implantable devices. In August 2016, researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (Newark, New Jersey) developed an ultrathin, flexible thermoelectric nanogenerator composed of low-cost cellulose and lead-telluride quantum dots using low-temperature solution-processing methods. Also, in September 2016, Researchers at North Carolina State University (Raleigh, North Carolina) developed a thermoelectric-nanogenerator device for powering wearable technology using electrical energy harvested from human body heat.

The year 2016 also saw continued technological progress in perovskite-solar-cell technology. In March 2016, researchers at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (Ulsan, South Korea) and Korea University of Science and Technology (Daejeon, South Korea) reported a record solar-conversion efficiency of 22.1% for a single-junction perovskite solar cell. In October 2016, Oxford Photovoltaics—a developer of hybrid silicon-perovskite solar-cell technology—received £8.7 million (approximately $10.5 million) in venture capital for the development of a perovskite-solar-cell production-demonstration line that the company will showcase to potential manufacturers.

Novel Ceramic and Metallic Construction Materials

Ceramic and metallic materials find extensive use in the construction industry. The industry is increasingly looking toward novel ceramic and metallic materials, in order to achieve cost savings and to become more sustainable. SMAs—which combine high strength and flexibility—are attractive candidate materials for use in the construction industry. In November 2016, the Washington State Department of Transportation began construction of the world's first bridge with vertical columns incorporating SMA nickel-titanium rods and bendable concrete. By design, the bridge's vertical columns are able to return to their original shape in the event of an earthquake with a magnitude of up to 7.5 on the Richter scale. Researchers at NASA's Glenn Research Center are also developing SMAs for rock splitting, with potential application in demolition and mining.

Biomimetics—the practice of developing systems that mimic biological processes—is a growing field of research that is increasingly affecting the construction industry. In 2016, several academic institutions launched research programs to develop biomimetic construction materials, such as concrete, that mimic the high-strength and mechanical properties of natural materials, including bone and shell. The year 2016 also saw researchers combine ceramic engineering and microbiology in the development of novel construction materials. For example, researchers at healCON—a consortium of European universities and companies—are developing biocement containing bacteria. Inserting bacteria into bricks and concrete could help generate heat, circulate air, repair cracks, and transform bricks and mortar into living buildings with reduced environmental footprints.

Look for These Developments in 2017

  • Thermoelectric commercialization. Further advances will occur in the development of thermoelectric materials for the recovery of waste heat in various industries. Start-up companies Phononic (Durham, North Carolina), Alphabet Energy (Hayward, California), and Evident Thermoelectric (Troy, New York) each received funding from investors in 2016 to push forward with the commercialization of thermoelectric technologies.
  • Commercialization of SMA orthopedic implants. SMA medical implants could see commercialization in 2017. Synoste (Espoo, Finland)—a medical-technology start-up company—has partnered with a glass-technology company, GlencaTec (Niederwangen, Switzerland), to develop its proprietary novel bone-lengthening implant. The plastic implant contains a nitinol alloy to enable minimally invasive treatments. Synoste plans to release its technology to the market in 2017.
  • Vertical integration using 3D printing. Metal 3D printing is likely to see further use in the fabrication of industrial components in 2017. GE aviation—which is already focusing on the vertical integration of its supply chains in order to secure ceramic-matrix-composite raw materials for aerospace applications—could also look toward the vertical integration of its supply chains for the manufacture of its metallic industrial components. GE Aviation could also leverage its acquisition of 3D-printing-technology companies to diversify as a supplier of 3D-printed components.
  • Advanced algorithms. Materials genomics is attracting significant R&D funding, and owing to advances in supercomputer technology and greater understanding of algorithm design, researchers are able to develop machine-learning techniques in shorter time frames. The year 2017 could see further innovations in this field. In particular, look for proof-of-concept experimental characterization of materials and products with predicted properties by means of machine-learning techniques.
  • Energy materials. Novel ceramic and metallic materials for use in the energy sector will continue to see technological and commercial progress in 2017. Next-generation energy-storage technologies saw technological development and attracted significant R&D funding from the automotive industry in 2016. Technological progress in next-generation energy-storage technologies—such as rechargeable-alkali metal-air batteries—will likely continue in 2017. The year 2017 could see the first pilot production of perovskite-solar-cell technology from Oxford Photovoltaics.