Innovation and conservatism in technical ceramics

By Davide Ghilotti
Published: Thursday, 26 January 2017

Technical ceramics are opening up new possibilities in everything from spaceships to dentistry, but the closed nature of the industry’s raw materials supply chain may be holding the sector back, Davide Ghilotti, Chief Reporter, finds.

According to leading alumina producer Almatis while the overall
ceramics market is stable, technical ceramic applications continue
to expand. Specific sectors within technical ceramics are growing,
such as electronic and automotive applications.  
Robert Van Dijk, via Flickr 

Technical ceramics (TCs) are an extended family of materials with several overlapping and undefined borders with other categories of engineered products.

Simply defined, TCs, also called advanced, engineered, special and fine ceramics, are materials whose thermal, electric and mechanical properties allow processes or products to run faster, at higher temperatures, in more extreme environments and last longer than other materials.

They provide high voltage insulation, vacuum integrity as well as toughness, hardness, conductivity and high resistance to wear, abrasion, temperature and corrosion. TCs are therefore usually employed as manufacturing parts and components in a variety of industries, including aerospace, automotive, healthcare, plastics and electronics.

Generally characterised by high chemical purity, TCs are classified in three distinct material categories: oxides (alumina and zirconia), non-oxides (carbides, borides and nitrides; and composites (particulate reinforced and combinations of oxides and non-oxides).  While a number of mineral raw materials are used to produce TCs, alumina accounts for about 70% of the market.

 As a share of global alumina supply, however, the volume that goes into technical ceramics is actually very low. Non-metallurgical alumina makes up just 6% of total alumina output and amounted to about 6.5m tonnes in 2015, according to analysis by Roskill Information Services

 The non-metallurgical alumina fraction is split between alumina trihydrate (ATH) and calcined aluminas. About 20% of calcined alumina goes into ceramics, of which TCs make up a small but valuable sub-category.

"It’s an attractive market for its many applications, but volumes are very different compared with standard alumina grades – they are much, much smaller," Mike Rodgers, director of marketing, business development at French alumina supplier, Alteo, told IM.

He explains that speciality aluminas like those used in TCs are produced to specification, and are therefore "not really commoditised". "Many products are almost custom-built. For this reason, it’s also not a particularly volatile market."

Improvements in TCs, which have been both rapid and varied as the materials have entered fast-paced industries such as medical engineering and semiconductors, have been credited to developments in processing methods but also to the tailoring of raw materials to ensure greater purity and homogeneity.

The capacity of mineral oxides like alumina and zirconia to be extensively purified, transformed and toughened has ensured their continued application in TCs, as manufacturers have opted to increase the quality of incumbent raw materials rather than switching to others.

In markets such as medical implants, TCs are displacing traditional materials like metal and plastic as higher performing, cost-effective substitutes.

Global alumina production January-November 2016 ('000 tonnes) 
Alumina production globally stood at 115.2m tonnes in 2015, according to data from
the International Aluminium Institute, including both chemical and metallurgical output.
It is no secret that the top largest markets for non-met alumina have been slowing down
over the last couple of years amid global economic turmoil. At the same time, available
data does point to a clear increment in the production of alumina grades for non-metallurgical
uses as of late. Total chemical alumina output in 2000 was about 4.34m tonnes. By 2015,
it had grown by 50%.
Source: International Aluminium Institute 

TC market growth

The advantages offered by TCs in such a wide range of expanding industries have accelerated market growth. 

A series of reports by well-known market research firms over the last six months have projected that the global TC market will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6-7% over the next five years to be worth somewhere in the region of $8-9bn by 2021.

In 2015, the electronics and semiconductor segment accounted for the largest share of the technical ceramics market, in value as well as volume, followed by automotive and energy applications. However the fastest growing segment over the next five years is expected to be the medical industry.

TCs are also making innovation possible in refractories. Cuts to steelmaking capacity, the biggest end user of refractories, has put negative pressure on refractories consumption volumes, but there is clear demand for better product performance and lifespan in this industry, meaning that the average value of refractory materials is on the rise.

Johannes Heckmann, CEO of German speciality refractory materials maker Nabaltec AG, told IM that refractory users are shifting towards high-alumina products to boost the efficiency of their processes and quality of their products.

"Alumina use is increasing, while [consumption of] basic products like magnesia is decreasing," he said. This shift towards high-end products is also boosting consumption of zirconia and silicon-carbide, although, as for alumina, the actual volume gains are incremental.

Yet despite growth in demand and appetite for innovation in TCs, the close relationships that existing raw materials suppliers establish with exacting customers have made the TC supply chain fairly conservative.

"Customers are keen on consistency of supply, especially in automotive," Rodgers explains. "They don’t want to change [suppliers], because the approval procedure for new supply is long and difficult. Once they have suitable supplies, they stick with them."

For this reason, it is difficult for new suppliers to penetrate the TC market. Although there is no suggestion of a looming raw materials supply risk, it could be argued that the closed nature of the TC supply chain is hampering innovation.

Lee Brady, a bauxite and alumina specialist at the US Geological Survey (USGS), has observed the rise in demand for higher purity grades of alumina, much of which has been driven by the TC sector.

"Suppliers are trying to meet that demand," he told IM. "In the meantime, consumers are getting by with the purities that are available."

The high value placed on TC-grade raw materials is largely due to the extensive refining they undergo, rather than any shortage in supply. It would be difficult, suppliers claim, to produce the requisite purities profitably for selling prices much lower than current levels. 

An increase in the availability of highly processed minerals would likely create more price competition and spur further innovation in the top half of the supply chain, but at the moment, unhindered access to raw materials means there is little incentive for change.

According to Rodgers, for non-metallurgical alumina at least, supply and demand are "fairly balanced" at present. "The market is growing enough and players are growing with the market," he told IM.

Heckman agrees. "I see stability in the industry at the moment. Supply is enough to cover global demand."

In 2015, the electronics and semiconductor segment
accounted for the largest share of the technical
ceramics market, in value as well as volume.
Mark Eslick, via Flickr 

Competitive risk

Given the lessons of raw materials history, the TC industry may turn out to have been too complacent about its position.

TCs are after all part of the wider ceramics industry, which has seen market share drift inexorably from West to East as Asian suppliers outcompeted their mainly European peers by providing cheap materials and developing low cost manufacturing.

This shift has also been evident in refractories, forcing Western manufacturers to focus on quality, having given up the war on price, after a new wave of Asian producers stole a march on established suppliers.
At the moment, most TC innovation is focused on the bottom half of the supply chain.

The European Commission (EC) has highlighted TC research as a beacon of R&D in the ceramics sector, which is otherwise struggling to fend off the incursion of Asian products and technologies.

Between 2013 and 2015, the EC sponsored a Belgium-based project to develop new sintering technologies for fabricating electrically conductive TCs, designed to "reinforce the position of European companies against their competitors in Asia and America".

But according to Germany-headquartered alumina materials specialist Almatis, advances in TCs are being propelled by "a continuous effort to improve the performance of existing and traditional components," rather than by a desire to come up with new uses.

"Industries strive to develop state-of-the-art solutions for their applications, [often by] adopting more technical ceramics," the company told IM.

In the US, the picture is broadly similar, although the American Ceramic Society along with private industry have been pushing forward novel applications for TCs. One recent notable example was technology giant Apple Inc.’s decision to combine gold with ceramic powders (in a ratio of 75:25) to reinforce the alloy used in its top-of-the-range gold edition Apple Watch.

Another eye-catching application was the development by Colorado-based CoorsTek Inc. and Norwegian and Spanish scientists of a ceramic membrane capable of turning natural gases like carbon dioxide and methane into liquid hydrocarbons. The technology was recently adopted by NASA for its Mars 2020 Rover expedition, which will use a ceramic membrane to create oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.

TCs used in the au­tomotive sector go into port liners, mani­fold
insulation, catalytic support systems, flow separator housings and
turbine noz­zles.  
Thomas Bresson, via Flickr 

TC outlook

For now, the TC industry is not concerned about its raw materials and believes that supply will be able to match projected industry growth. 

Factors such as ageing population, population growth, transportation, energy generation and consumer electronics can all have an impact in driving expansion in TC demand and as Almatis points out, volume growth in existing applications is likely to be strong.

Almatis has singled out the electronics and automotive sectors as
two of its biggest demand drivers.
Thomas Bresson, via Flickr. 

Mike Murray, chief technology officer at UK-based speciality materials manufacturer Morgan Advanced Materials, does however believe that these market dynamics will drive diversification in TC raw materials, but stops short of suggesting that this could see the arrival of new players.

"There is a continual trend to develop new materials and processing technology to meet the growing demands of the market," Murray told IM. "This leads to new materials with novel performance and new processing techniques that allow designs of such complexity that new applications and performance options emerge."

Like any highly diversified market, TCs as a whole are largely protected from downturns. But stubborn conservatism in the industry could see geographical declines in TC manufacturing, if other parts of the world prove to be nimbler, cheaper and more willing to take risks.

Uses of technical ceramics

In aerospace, TCs are used to make exhaust nozzles, thermal insulators and supports for on-board instruments; in automotive, they go into port liners, manifold insulation, catalytic support systems, flow separator housings or turbine nozzles.

In electronics, they play an essential role as insulating elements. TCs are used in connectors housing, electronic substrates, circuit-breaker components, appliance insulators, X-ray and other electrical equipment.

Other end markets include heat treating – for induction heating tubes, furnace insulation and kiln furniture – and metallurgy – in crucibles for molten metal, nozzles, liners, permanent molds and other parts.
Petrochemicals, plastics, dentistry and healthcare also make use of TCs.

TC growth areas

Geography and R&D specialisation tend to influence perspectives on the TC market, but there is broad consensus that all application areas are growing.

According to Jessica Roberts, division manager, minor metals, at Roskill Information Services, each of the main applications for TCs are expected to grow at least at the rate of global GDP – around 3% per year – although some sectors will be do better than others.

UK-headquartered Morgan Advanced Materials has highlighted the medical sector as one of the most dynamic areas for TCs, particularly in laser reflector products, the increased usage of which is being driven primarily by the improved availability of cosmetic skin treatments, hair and tattoo removal.

By contrast, Germany-based Almatis has singled out the electronics and automotive sectors as two of its biggest demand drivers.

Applications for synthetic sapphire, an alumina-based TC, are also posting eyecatching growth rates – especially in LED lighting systems and electronic substrates for portable electronics.