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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials October 2019 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Rory Marrast

Laser Welding Enables New Applications for Ceramic Materials

Why is this topic significant?

Ceramic materials are limited in their applications because of difficulties in processing the materials. Researchers have developed a new welding technique that can enable easier implementation of ceramic welding in manufacturing processes.

Description

Ceramics is an important class of material that demonstrates strength superior to that of metallic materials and temperature advantages. Despite the advantageous attributes of ceramics as a material, the difficulty of using the material in some meaningful processes limits its applicability and integration into general manufacturing processes. For example, the temperature resilience of ceramics severely prevents its use in welding ceramics to other materials—including other ceramics—because the high temperature necessary to melt the ceramics often causes cracks and deformities in the material. Current advances in materials science seek to develop new ceramic-joining technology to enable ceramics to find new applications.

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, and the University of California, Riverside, recently overcame the temperature constraints of joining ceramics by developing an ultrafast-laser-pulse (UFLP) welding platform. The laser produces longwave radiation at 50 watts and generates pulses every 0.2 to 2 picoseconds that hit a specific area of the ceramic's outer layer. The ceramic material absorbs the radiation, and the boundary layer heats up and transforms into a molten liquid. Pressing the two materials together completes the welding process.

The fast laser pulses enable researchers to control the welding process to a high degree, because the laser focuses precisely to enable the ceramic particles to absorb the laser's energy. The researchers' method is best suited for transparent ceramics (that do not reflect the laser's light).

Implications

UFLPs enable the researchers to fabricate joint ceramic parts via welding without compromising their structural integrity, which would otherwise occur with existing welding methods involving the application of direct heat. The 50-watt longwave lasers that operate at room temperature are relatively inexpensive—in comparison with high-pressure ceramic welding machines—and widely available. Importantly, engineers can easily integrate the lasers into current factory production lines. Because the ceramic materials in use commonly exist as oxides, manufacturers need not worry about introducing additional processes to mitigate oxidizing the material during welding as they would when welding metal materials.

Impacts/Disruptions

The development of laser-welding technology could replace some current welding technologies. For example, the UFLP welding technique can repair voids and open joints in damaged ceramic structures that serve in furnaces, with minimal downtime for the manufacturing process. UFLP welding competes with similar welding technologies such as Lockheed Martin's ceramic-forming-constituents process for welding ceramic-metal-matrix-composite materials. Also, electron-beam welding (using electrons to weld materials together) offers greater control of the beam's penetration depth than is possible with UFLP welding. However, electron-bean welding requires vacuum conditions and very high start-up and operational costs, which limits its use to high-value aerospace and defense applications.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Manufacturing, building and construction, welding

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Harvesting Water from Dry Air

Why is this topic significant?

Water availability will become a growing global concern as the demand for water continues to increase in the coming years. Researchers are currently developing metal-framework technologies that serve in viable water-harvesting applications.

Description

Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are crystalline networks of metal centers coordinated within organic linkages. The frameworks see applications in gas-storage, purification, and separation applications. Researchers are attracted to the gas-storage applications of MOFs because their high surface area enables the large storage of gases in ambient conditions.

Water Harvesting (Mountain View, California) a spinout from the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), is currently commercializing the latest MOFs produced by UCB researchers for use in water-storage applications. The researchers synthesized and tested MOF-303, a new aluminum-based MOF that performs water adsorption and desorption within a few minutes. The researchers tested the MOF in the Mojave Desert in California and arranged the MOFs in a thin layer array to maximize the surface area. A rig pumps desert air over the MOFs, and they absorb the present water vapor. The researchers heat the MOFs to release the water vapor before condensing it. The MOF setup condensed more than 2 liters of water in three days at 10% humidity.

Implications

Atmospheric water-generation technologies typically operate by cooling air in order to condense the water vapor. However, they are largely inefficient and typically consume more water than they generate. The new MOF demonstrates over ten times the harvesting capability of other MOFs and enables water collection in some of the world's most arid terrains. Unlike other adsorbing systems—for example, zeolites (microporous adsorbents)—water does not adsorb too strongly to the MOF and is easy to remove with minimal energy input.

In addition to presenting its current offerings, Water Harvesting is unveiling a commercial prototype toward the end of 2019. Professor Omar Yaghi, a chemist active with UCB's research, claims that researchers will mass-produce a microwave-size unit that can deliver up to 10 liters of water a day. Production of the unit is also sustainable. The system uses relatively abundant aluminum and is amenable to fabrication without the use of harmful organic solvents. The company, in collaboration with UCB, hopes to use computer algorithms and machine learning to generate more MOF designs that improve the material's water-adsorbing performance and reduce the overall cost of unit production.

Impacts/Disruptions

The development marks another method of commercializing a relatively abundant but hard-to-obtain commodity. The technology might have the potential to disrupt the current supply chain of water to desert cities. For example, the city of Las Vegas in Nevada imports the majority of its water supply from the Colorado River. A different source of water, such as atmospheric water generation, may also affect a city's water-purification infrastructure, because airborne water is subject to different compositions than those of possibly polluted groundwater.

Countries and areas where water is scarce and that scarcity is responsible for famines could experience the greatest benefits. Viable water supply can change the economic outlook of many countries and propel their growth. In addition to humans, whose diets require a lot of water, many industries—including petroleum refining and power generation—require a plentiful water supply for industrial operations to proceed.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Water filtration, gas filters, remediation, water purification

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: