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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials December 2017/January 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Cassandra Harris

2017: The Year in Review

The year 2017 was mixed for novel ceramic and metallic materials. For the most part, 2017 was a quiet year for developments in metal-matrix composites and, to a lesser extent, ceramic-matrix composites. The year 2017 saw many early-stage research developments. Although these developments were somewhat fragmented in terms of material type and application area, energy and electronics applications of ceramic and metallic materials stood out as active areas of research and development. Research groups and companies had success in advancing ceramic and metal 3D-printing technologies and increasing the range and complexity of ceramic and metallic materials that are compatible with 3D printing.

Aerospace and Transport

Several important commercial developments in ceramic-matrix composites (CMCs) for aerospace applications occurred toward the end of 2017. GE Aviation announced progress in the development of its $200 million CMC-manufacturing facility in Huntsville, Alabama. The facility, due to commence operation in 2018, will mass-produce CMC components for use in gas turbines and the LEAP jet engine that the company developed in partnership with Safran through CFM International. The use of CMCs instead of metallic components in turbofan engines dramatically improves the technology's fuel efficiency, and reportedly CFM International has received 11,000 preorders with a value of $140 billion for its LEAP engine from aircraft manufacturers. However, in November 2017, CFM International experienced a setback when it had to recall and repair all LEAP engines in operation as a result of the CMC coating's flaking off from the engine's turbine shrouds during flight. The technical issue has forced CFM International to redevelop its CMC coating, and as a result, the company is failing to meet its promised delivery dates.

Partnerships are under way to advance novel metallic materials for aerospace applications. For example, in October 2017, NASA and Boeing announced their partnership for the development of aircraft wings incorporating nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys that bend in flight, potentially increasing aircraft performance and efficiency by reducing drag and weight. In November 2017, Boeing invested in Gamma Alloys (Valencia, California) to support its development of aluminum-based nano-reinforced metal-matrix composites for aerospace- and automotive-lightweighting applications. The transport sector is a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions, and in 2017, the industry continued to transition from using conventional steels to using lightweight metals in structural components. For example, leading aluminum-manufacturer Novelis attributed 18% sales growth in 2017 to increasing demand for aluminum from automakers.

Energy and Industrial

Novel ceramic and metallic materials are playing an enabling role in the technological and commercial development of low-carbon power-generation technologies, and the year 2017 saw many developments in this field. In particular, several research groups reported the development of ceramic and metallic materials with high radiation tolerance that hold promise for enhancing the efficiency of nuclear reactors and radioactive-waste containment. For example, in January 2017, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published research describing an alumina composite that becomes tougher with exposure to radiation. A growing body of research shows that perovskite photovoltaic technology is beginning to live up to its promise of disrupting the solar industry. For example, in August 2017, researchers at Imec (Leuven, Belgium) reported a record solar-conversion efficiency of 25.3% for a hybrid perovskite-silicon multijunction solar cell in laboratory tests. This value exceeds the efficiency record of 22.3% for market-leading multicrystalline-silicon technology. In December 2016, Oxford Photovoltaics announced it had signed a joint-development agreement with a major industrial partner to demonstrate the production of its hybrid silicon–perovskite multijunction solar technology.

The use of porous inorganic materials for chemical absorption, separation, and catalysis was an active area of research and development in 2017. In particular, researchers had much success in developing zeolites for carbon capture and synthetic-fuel production. For example, in May 2017, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences developed a stable and highly efficient ceramic-zeolite-composite catalyst that absorbs and converts carbon dioxide into long-chain hydrocarbons. Researchers are increasingly demonstrating the ability of novel ceramic and metallic materials to extract value from waste. In April 2017, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory announced its partnership with Alphabet Energy (Hayward, California) to develop a cost-effective process for manufacturing its industrial silicon-nanowire thermoelectric waste-heat-recovery system that displays high heat-to-electricity conversion efficiencies in excess of 10%.

Although the year 2017 saw many developments in ceramic and metal 3D-printing technology, the use of 3D printing for fabricating porous structures with tunable microstructural features is advancing rapidly. For example, in February 2017, researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed ceramic-foam ink for 3D printing honeycomb structures with independently tunable macroscale and microscale porosity, geometry, and stiffness. Further developments in this field could benefit a variety of applications, including catalysis, membrane separation, electrochemical devices, and medical implants.

Electronic

Flexible electronics components that can bend, stretch, or fold could open new applications of electronic devices that span many industries. At present, touchscreen displays make use of indium tin oxide (ITO) electrodes that are costly and brittle. A major drive exists among researchers to develop silver-nanowire electrodes as low-cost and flexible replacements for ITO. In June 2017, researchers at the University of Vermont made an important step forward by demonstrating that silver nanowires, measuring less than 10 nanometers in length, display high strength with 200% elongation at room temperature. The researchers claim that they could fabricate the wires into a transparent and electrically conductive mesh. The year 2017 also saw technological developments in room-temperature liquid alloys for flexible-electronic-device applications. For example, in April 2017, researchers at North Carolina State University published research describing the development of touch-sensitive and stretchy polymer-encased liquid-gallium-indium-alloy fibers for touchscreen applications.

Concerns that current lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries will be unable to support the power requirements of increasingly advanced portable-electronic devices have driven extensive research and development into energy-harvesting materials that supplement or replace conventional batteries. The year 2017 saw electronic devices incorporating energy-harvesting materials enter the market. For example, in November 2017, Matrix Industries (Menlo Park, California) began shipments of its Powerwatch—the first smartwatch to incorporate a thermoelectric generator that is powered exclusively by the wearer's body heat. Novel ceramic and metallic materials are also playing an enabling role in increasing the life span and energy density of present-day and next-generation Li-ion batteries, and 2017 saw a number of encouraging developments in this area. For example, in November 2017, researchers at the University of Texas announced the development of a low-cost tin-aluminum-alloy anode that they claim weighs half the weight of conventional graphite anodes and doubles the storage capacity of Li-ion batteries.

Medical

Wearable and implantable electronic devices for health monitoring and disease treatment have the potential to enhance health care greatly, but the practical application of these devices is limited because conventional batteries require frequent recharging or replacement. Energy-harvesting materials are attracting significant attention from researchers for their potential to create self-powered medical devices that reduce the cost burdens associated with implant replacement. In May 2017, researchers at the University of Buffalo developed an implant capable of wirelessly powering a cardiac pacemaker. The implant comprises a piezoelectric ceramic—lead zirconate titanate—that converts the vibrational energy of a beating heart into electricity.

Researchers are also making progress in the development of ceramic and metallic nanoparticles for diagnostic and targeted drug-delivery applications. For example, in March 2017, researchers at ITMO University (St Petersburg, Russia) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zurich, Switzerland) announced the development of luminescent hafnium-oxide nanoparticles for medical-imaging applications; the material has approval for intravenous injection from the US Food and Drug Administration. Nanoparticles are seeing increasing use in medicine, cosmetics, and personal-care products, but the year 2017 also saw the publication of several studies demonstrating serious health, safety, and environmental risks of nanomaterials. These studies have the potential to drive regulatory changes that disrupt the nanomaterials market.

Construction

The construction industry is a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions. In 2017, technological and commercial developments in novel ceramic and metallic materials for construction applications reflected ongoing efforts to make the industry more sustainable. The year 2017 saw many start-up companies enter the market attempting to commercialize green cement and concrete that, for example, absorbs pollutants or comprises large quantities of waste products such as fly ash. Major industry players are also taking steps to increase their production of green steel using processes that generate less waste and fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than do conventional processing methods. GFG Alliance (London, England) announced more than $200 million in funding for the development of renewable-power plants to provide clean electricity for its steel plants and various other metal-processing plants in the United Kingdom and Australia.

In addition to having success in technological developments in high-strength materials for construction applications, researchers had success also in developing new construction materials that are compatible with 3D printing. For example, in July 2017, researchers at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany, used direct ink writing to 3D print optically transparent glass, potentially paving the way for the rapid manufacturing of custom-designed architectural glass as well as a variety of consumer products. 3D printing construction materials on a large scale could be highly disruptive for the construction industry by reducing labor costs and build time. In 2017, several research groups and companies used 3D-printing technology to create small buildings and civil infrastructures, and in March 2017, Cazza (Dubai, United Arab Emirates) announced plans to 3D print the world's first skyscraper using its crane-printing technique.

Look for These Developments in 2018

  • CMC market uncertainty. Issues concerning CMC coatings could undermine aircraft-manufacturer confidence in CFM International's LEAP engine as well as the GE9X engine currently under development by GE Aviation. CMC International will need to act swiftly to correct the coating issue and ensure it delivers its LEAP engine to customers on time.
  • 3D-printing advances. Expect wider commercial use of 3D-printing technology in a variety of industries in 2018. 3D-printing techniques for ceramic and metallic materials will advance technologically.
  • Energy-harvesting commercialization. The year 2017 was active for the development and early commercialization of electronic devices incorporating energy-harvesting materials. New market entrants are a possibility in 2018, but commercial devices from leading electronic-device manufacturers are unlikely.
  • Energy and industrial applications. Energy and industrial applications of novel ceramic and metallic materials will continue to receive significant R&D funding in 2018. The year 2018 could see Oxford Photovoltaics announce the development of production-ready perovskite solar cells.
  • Material hybridization as a development strategy. The year 2017 saw a number of technological developments arising from the hybridization of organic and inorganic materials. Expect more developments in this area in 2018, relevant to industry applications such as health care, energy, and electronics.