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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials December 2019/January 2020 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Rory Marrast

2019: The Year in Review

The year 2019 was active for developments in novel ceramic and metallic materials. Researchers continued to develop novel ceramic and metallic materials for use in renewable-energy and semiconductor applications. In particular, 2019 was a strong year for the development of novel metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) across many applications, including water harvesting and drug delivery. This annual review highlights significant developments across the novel ceramics and metallic materials industries, which could further affect the commercialization of these materials.

Metal 3D Printing

Companies experienced growing demand for metal-3D-printing technology and processes during 2019. Metal 3D printing's expanding capabilities enabled the technology to infiltrate a growing number of industries and processes. Forecasters predicted that the 3D-printing-metals market would grow beyond a 31% compound-annual rate during and beyond 2019. Metal-3D-printing companies focused on expanding their current production output and commercializing novel metal-fabrication processes that offer unrivaled control of the final product's geometry. Xerox (Norwalk, Connecticut) entered the metal-additive-manufacturing (AM) market in 2019 after acquiring Vader Systems early in the year and has spent the remainder of 2019 optimizing its liquid-metal-droplet additive-manufacturing process in anticipation of future pilot launches of the printer. The novel printer precisely deposits 1,000 metal drops per second and offers a very high degree of control over the final product's end form. Massachusetts metal-3D-printer provider Markforged opened a new production facility in September 2019 to support production efforts for its current offering, which includes its recently developed Markforged Inconel 625 (a variant of Special Metals Corporation's Inconel 625—a temperature- and corrosion-resistant nickel-chromium-based superalloy that serves a use in the chemical and aerospace industries) that researchers can process using its Metal X 3D printer. Without Markforged's modified Inconel 625 printing processes, companies would require significant investment in machining-intensive processes to fabricate materials from the alloy.

Many companies have also developed new metal-3D-printing technologies that provide end users with greater control over feedstock-material choice. Austrian start-up Incus launched its lithography-based additive-manufacturing technology at the end of 2019. The printer can accept a composite feedstock with metal particles that measure 20 micrometers in size before the printer cures the feed material within its oven. The printer sinters the structure to reveal its final metal form. New metal-AM company Meltio announced the launch of its Meltio M450 printer—a hybrid deposition technology that combines both power-bed diffusion and fused-deposition-modeling technologies—the first commercial multilaser deposition 3D printer that can handle either metal wire or metal powder without changing the nozzle. Meltio claims that the printer offers a complete start-to-finish manufacturing solution that will meet the manufacturing requirements for multiple industries.

Novel Ceramic and Metallic Materials in Renewable-Energy Applications

The effect of greenhouse-gas emissions on global warming further motivated research efforts by suppliers to the renewable-energy industry in 2019. Players in the renewable-energy industry are interested in applications of novel materials to renewable-energy technologies to further the sector's commercial viability—through improving the efficiency that renewable-energy technologies operate at and, in turn, reducing the price of electricity from renewable-energy sources. During the year 2019, novel ceramic and metallic materials evidently played an important role in applications for energy harvesting and efficient energy transformation.

  • Materials with applications in hydrogen delivery. The hype surrounding hydrogen energy storage still exists because renewably sourced hydrogen can deliver clean energy. In 2019, novel ceramic and metallic materials saw use in boosting the efficiency of technologies that operate across the hydrogen economy. Researchers from the University of Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, delivered a ceramic electrolyte for use in electrochemical cells to convert the cells' gathered electrical energy into hydrogen gas efficiently for subsequent gas storage in tanks. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, achieved a world record in hydrogen storage using a novel nickel-based MOF. One liter of the MOF material was enough to store almost 12 grams of hydrogen gas at 100 bars of pressure—which is 33% less pressure than would be necessary using a 1-liter pressurized tank to store the same amount of hydrogen. Various other novel ceramic and metal materials that enhance aspects of the hydrogen economy also appeared throughout the year.
  • Perovskites in photovoltaics. Perovskite—ceramic crystal structures of a specific metal-oxide composition—photovoltaic technology has exponentially advanced year-on-year since 2012, and significant developments concerning perovskite photovoltaic cells persisted throughout 2019. Research groups and commercial entities alike demonstrated record-breaking power-conversion efficiencies across perovskite-photovoltaic-cell technologies. In addition to addressing efficiency records, research in 2019 also addressed solar-cell-efficiency reductions that occur when perovskite solar cells scale up to commercially producible dimensions. The European Solar Test Installation laboratory (Varese, Italy) verified that Chinese firm Microquanta Semiconductor achieved a 14.24% efficiency for a large-area (over 200 by 800 square centimeters [cm2]) perovskite photovoltaic module in real-world conditions. The development follows Microquanta's previously achieved 11.98% conversion-efficiency record for a large-module perovskite photovoltaic in August 2019.
    • Australia National University set a new power-conversion efficiency record of 21.6% for a single-junction perovskite solar cell measuring 1 cm2.
    • Researchers at the Nanjing University in China and the University of Toronto in Canada fabricated all-perovskite tandem solar cells that demonstrate a power-conversion efficiency of 24.8%.
    • Scientists at Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah University of Science and Technology set a new efficiency record of 21.09% for a single-crystal perovskite using the methylammonium lead triiodide perovskite by growing each crystal individually, which reduces the number of crystal defects that interfere with conversion efficiency.
    • Industry leaders Oxford PV in England placed orders for perovskite top cell-production equipment from Meyer Burger in August 2019 in preparation for commencing commercial production of the perovskite-on-silicon tandem solar cell in 2020.

Computing Power and Semiconductors

The novel nanomaterials approach to computer-component development made progress in 2019. Researchers are responding to the current deviation from Moore's law—which has seen the number of transistors in an integrated circuit double about every 18 months—that threatens the processing power of future computer microprocessors. Theoretical calculations by researchers at the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering in Texas deduced that the two-dimensional semimetal antimony could serve as a postsilicon replacement in semiconductor-material applications because its high charge mobility enables faster charge movement than that of silicon and similar-size materials. In June 2019, University of Rochester researchers demonstrated a strain-responsive nanomaterial-based transistor. Stretching 2D molybdenum ditelluride causes a rapid switch between the semiconductive and semimetallic state of the nanomaterial.

Researchers' development of classes of nanotransistors—for example, field-effect transistors—also requires their development of nanoinsulators. However, use of nanomaterials can interfere with a semiconductor's electrical properties because of its structural imperfections. In July 2019, researchers from Wien University in Austria fabricated perfect ionic crystals of calcium fluoride as an insulator that does not interfere with the electrical properties of the semiconductor.

Water Sequestration

Research and commercial opportunities were present for novel ceramic materials in water-sequestration technology throughout 2019, particularly for membrane-filtration materials in water-purification systems. In September 2019, PUB—Singapore's national water agency—completed the restructuring of the Choa Chu Kang Waterworks, making the waterworks the world's largest ceramic-membrane water- treatment plant. Ceramic-membrane systems—such as ceramic-hollow-fiber membranes—offer superior operational efficiency and improvements to a filtration system that typically uses polymeric membranes. Companies were keen to demonstrate the superiority of ceramic membranes over other filtration technologies. In January 2019, CoorsTek (Golden, Colorado) and Deltapore (Gelderland, Netherlands) demonstrated that alumina-based ceramic-hollow-fiber membranes offer superior filtering over centrifuge-filtration technology in coolant fluid-filtration applications.

Because the global demand for clean water is rising yearly, researchers made inroads in developing low-cost ceramic-filtration systems during 2019. Notably, University of Wisconsin researchers delivered a novel ceramic-filtration system that removes chemical pollutants from water using only readily available red clay with recycled paper. Other researchers also contributed significantly to the proliferation of low-cost ceramic-filtration systems. In July 2019, Benin University scientists published a novel process for adapting readily available 3D printers—such as the Ultimaker 1 desktop 3D printer—to print clay-based ceramic structures that form the filter structure in water-filtration apparatus.

Novel MOFs have demonstrated their potential for use in water-collection technology. Researchers from California-based firm Water Harvesting demonstrated their patented aluminum-based MOF that adsorbs water vapor present in the air. The MOF forms part of a rig system that condenses and collects the water for further use—potentially paving the way for water collection in arid environments.

Medical Applications

Although the year 2019 proved to be quiet for novel ceramic and metallic material developments concerning medical technology, several novel developments did emerge. Examples follow.

  • In January 2019, Nanchang University researchers 3D printed a zirconia ceramic hip joint with integrated zinc oxide nanoparticles to introduce antibacterial properties to the ceramic hip joint.
  • Researchers at the University of Cambridge developed a porous zirconium-based MOF that can deliver ribonucleic acid into cells, aiding both drug-delivery and genetic-modification techniques.
  • Research funded by the European Space Agency investigated the biomimetic ceramic nanoceria as a potential long-term antioxidant solution to reduce cellular damage sustained by humans in space.

Look for These Developments in 2020

  • Perovskite solar-cell efficiency. Perovskite solar-cell companies will seek out additional funding as they focus on approaching the theoretical power-conversion efficiencies of the solar-cell technology in question. Because commercial demand for solar cells is concerned with large solar-cell modules, commercial efforts that increase the power-conversion efficiencies of the photovoltaic during scale-up will likely define perovskite solar cell developments in 2020.
  • Mergers and acquisitions in metal 3D printing. Metal 3D printing is set to grow faster than plastic 3D printing in 2020. As the technology threatens to outcompete currently established metal-fabrication technology, the established manufacturers may seek to purchase metal-3D-printing companies to include 3D-printed metal products as part of their long-term strategic-investment plans in the rapidly changing manufacturing market.
  • Alternative solutions for sourcing metals. Following the Chinese government's threat to reduce exportation to the United States of rare-earth metals that are necessary for thousands of technologies, governments and companies alike will seek out alternative sources and alternatives for the rare metals. Research efforts could make inroads for developing hybrid materials with the physical and chemical properties that make rare-earth metals unique.
  • Computational contributions. Aspects of data science—for example, artificial intelligence—will further diffuse into various aspects of ceramic and metallic materials research and development processes and enable faster materials discovery, theoretical calculations, and experimental simulations in 2020. Novel ceramic and metal material-development time could consequently experience significant improvements.