Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials December 2022/January 2023 Viewpoints
2022: The Year in Review
By Alastair Cunningham
In a look forward to 2023, further innovation in this field will continue to be necessary, as governments look to meet climate-change targets, companies seek to gain a competitive advantage, and administrative bodies legislate against the use of toxic heavy metals in consumer products. High energy costs will also be a leading factor in driving individual companies (and industrial sectors as a whole) to ensure that they optimize fabrication processes and minimize waste. In the longer-term future, the need for massive quantities of lithium (to supply the growing market for lithium‑ion batteries) is likely to push actors within this sector to develop alternative technologies to power the smartphones and electric vehicles of the future.
Key Developments Identified by SBI in 2022
- Shape-Shifting Ceramics. Engineers from Kiel University and the University of Minnesota created novel ceramics using a phase-transformation method evident in shape-memory alloys. Depending on reactions conditions, the ceramics displayed shape-reversible or explosive disintegration properties.
- Hydrogen Fuel Cells. Hydrogen fuel cells could find use in a range of industrial applications. Cornell University researchers demonstrated that nitrogen‑doped, carbon-coated nickel anodes act as a catalyst in the cells—enabling the replacement of the significantly more expensive heavy metals that currently find use.
- Protonic Ceramic Fuel Cells. Protonic ceramic fuel cells (PCFCs) exhibit particularly high thermodynamic efficiencies but suffer from an absence of high-performance, low-cost cathode materials. Researchers from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology achieved record PCFC performance using a novel iron‑based cathode material that is entirely based on inexpensive and abundant materials.
- Ultrathin Flexible Solar Cells. Thin-film photovoltaics can offer advantages such as minimal material consumption, low cost, and high specific power. Stanford University researchers recently developed an ultrathin, flexible solar cell based on a transition-metal dichalcogenide on a polyimide substrate. The device showed a record-high efficiency for this group of materials.
- Silver-Nanowire Pressure Sensors. Recent research describes a low-cost, flexible pressure sensor based on a composite of silver nanowires and cellulose on a paper substrate. This device exhibits a range of advantageous technical and mechanical properties that justify its consideration as having potential for commercial success. However, many technical and commercial barriers remain before this technology is market ready.
- Ceramic-Based Solid-State Batteries. High-performance energy-storage solutions for the automotive sector will be necessary as the industry shifts toward electric vehicles. Solid-state batteries hold several advantages over the current state-of-the‑art solutions but, to date, have made no commercial impact. A recent deal between Mercedes-Benz and ProLogium could accelerate the commercialization of this technology.
- Novel Metallic Inks. Demand for consumer electronics is increasing at unprecedented rates. Innovation in this industry is necessary to ensure that this demand both is met and continues to grow. Electroninks recently announced a new line of particle-free gold and platinum conductive inks that could lead to such innovation by providing device manufacturers access to a range of advantageous properties.
- Glucose Fuel Cells. Glucose, which the body absorbs via food, acts as an energy source for humans. Recent research aims to harness this energy source to generate useful power, employing glucose fuel cells to convert sugar to electricity. This technology could represent a significant breakthrough in the field of medical implants, in which bulky batteries currently dominate.
- Improved Solid-State-Battery Production. The commercialization of solid-state batteries would represent a major step forward for a variety of products that require energy storage, from consumer electronics to automobiles. However, challenges related to production currently limit this commercial potential. Recent research involving a novel cold-sintering fabrication method aims to address these challenges.
- First 3D-Printed Ceramic Microreactor. Technical ceramics display a number of advantageous properties that make them the material of choice for a wide range of applications. However, in some instances, specific and intricate structures are necessary to bring these applications to fruition. Recent work demonstrates how engineers can employ 3D printing to produce such detailed structures.
- Ultrahigh Piezoelectric Performance in Polycrystalline Ceramics. Single-crystal ceramics outperform polycrystalline alternatives in terms of piezoelectric performance. However, recent research examined the barriers to enhancing these performance levels, demonstrating significant improvements. Replacing single-crystal materials with polycrystalline ones could lead to a substantial decrease in cost—in turn, enhancing the economic viability of some applications.
- Novel Methane-Conversion Technology. As a potent greenhouse gas, methane in the atmosphere causes considerable environmental problems. However, converting it to other useful chemicals using catalytic methods is an extremely challenging process. Recent research, using novel metallic materials, demonstrates how this conversion is possible in a highly efficient manner and at room temperature and pressure.
- Novel Ceramic Aerogels. Ceramic materials exhibit excellent thermal-insulation properties but, owing to their brittle nature, generally cannot find use in flexible applications. Recent research directly addresses this barrier, demonstrating a novel ceramic aerogel that, in addition to possessing a good degree of flexibility, can also withstand extreme temperature conditions.
Areas to Monitor Highlighted by SBI in 2022
Macro/Dynamic Issues (Frequently Featured)
Research and commercial players are continuously developing new materials with improved properties and materials that require less of costly raw materials or fewer processing methods than established materials require. In some cases, novel materials enable entirely new applications or breakthrough performance benefits.
New Printable Materials
Many 3D-printing materials are already commercially available; however, materials choice for 3D printing is still relatively limited in comparison with materials choice for traditional manufacturing processes. New 3D‑printing materials will enable an array of new applications and business opportunities.
Novel Materials in Renewable Energy
Although novel ceramic and metallic materials have had applications in renewable-energy markets for years, the accelerating energy transition has made renewables a critical growth market for novel materials. Applications to monitor include materials for batteries, solar cells, wind turbines, and hydrogen systems.
Solid-state electrolytes can make metallic anodes practical in various high-energy-density-battery technologies. Electric vehicles represent the largest target market for solid-state batteries, followed by consumer electronics and devices such as drones. Solid-state chemistries can enable unique battery form factors.
Micro/Semi-Stable Issues (Sometimes Featured)
3D printing promises to enable easy integration of printed electronics into complex physical objects. Only some forms of 3D printing lend themselves to integrating printed electronics, and 3D printing electronics requires simultaneously printing with multiple materials that must match well in terms of processing tolerances.
Superior physical, chemical, and thermal properties have made ceramic membranes the ideal choice for applications such as the processing of food, chemicals, metals, and waste materials in which polymeric membranes are unsuitable. Ceramic membranes consist of oxides of aluminum, titanium, silicon, carbon, or glass.
Developers of organic and nanoelectronic materials may be able to create fully flexible devices or devices that incorporate flexible sections—for example, a smartphone with a display that can roll up into the device when not in use. This creation can enable new device formats and even new display applications.
Technology commercialization cannot proceed without investment, and well-capitalized technologies almost always advance faster than do technologies with limited funding. Investment trends to monitor include those relating to venture capital, corporate R&D budgets, defense projects, and government investment.
Some developers are looking at commercializing small fuel cells for use in portable electronics. These portable fuel cells would offer various advantages over lithium‑ion batteries—in particular, greater energy capacity and shorter charge/refuel times. Even smaller fuel cells may find use in wearable or health-care applications.
Wearable technologies—including smartwatches, smart clothing, augmented-reality headsets, and hearables—are enabling new ways for users to interact with devices and software. Currently, developers are incorporating health sensors and activity- and health-tracking software into devices. Such devices may one day enable advanced interfaces.
Look for These Developments in 2023
- Additive manufacturing. A consortium of companies led by Metal Powder will begin work on developing and scaling high-entropy-alloy powders for additive-manufacturing applications in 2023. These novel materials (distinct from standard alloys in that no single element is dominant) possess a range of advantageous properties and will play a commercially important role in the coming years.
- Lithium mining. Demand for lithium will continue to rise in 2023, fueled by the need to produce batteries to support the automotive industry. To supply this demand, a major new Brazilian mine will come online in 2023.
- Microscale 3D-printed ceramics. The ability to fabricate microscale 3D‑printed ceramics (via post‑build coating techniques) will lead to a number of innovative solutions to existing problems in 2023. These techniques—pioneered by innovative companies such as Horizon—could prove particularly useful in the fields of 3D microfluidics and microelectromechanical systems.
- Ceramic medical implants. Improved material properties will lead to the increased use of ceramic medical implants in 2023. Companies such as Austria-based Lithoz are leading the development of novel ceramic materials that exhibit longer shelf lives, that are easier to clean, and that have significantly larger wall thickness—thereby expanding the range of potential uses.