|According to leading alumina producer Almatis while
ceramics market is stable, technical ceramic applications
to expand. Specific sectors within technical ceramics are
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
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,
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
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
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
"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
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
accounted for the largest share of the technical
ceramics market, in value as well as volume.
Mark Eslick, via Flickr
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
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
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
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
insulation, catalytic support systems, flow separator
Thomas Bresson, via Flickr
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
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
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
By contrast, Germany-based Almatis has singled out the
electronics and automotive sectors as two of its biggest demand
Applications for synthetic sapphire, an alumina-based TC, are
also posting eyecatching growth rates – especially
in LED lighting systems and electronic substrates for