A team of Chinese scientists has developed what it says is the world’s first malleable ceramic material. It can reportedly bend like a metal but has retained the hardness synonymous with ceramics.
The breakthrough textile could see use in several major industries, including aviation, motoring, medicine and renewable energy.
Ceramics possess several qualities that make them well-suited to a variety of technological applications. They are non-magnetic, rust-resistant and are both thermal and electrical insulators.
However, ceramic materials are also brittle and prone to breaking when bent. The consensus amongst the scientific community was that ceramics could not reach a level of plasticity without sacrificing any strength as a result.
Materials scientist, Chen Kexin, and his team from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, believe they have worked around the negative relationship between plasticity and strength with their new flexible creation, and Chen believes is the first example of its kind.
The ceramic design was created from two distinct structures of silicon nitride nanopillars. A nanopillar is a tube or pillar-like structure no larger than 10 nanometers in circumference.
These minuscule building blocks can be organised into a lattice arrangement to make larger ceramics. When subjected to external forces, each nanopillar structure briefly transforms into the other, allowing for the ceramic to bend without breaking before assuming its original state.
Chen and his Tsinghua University compatriots are optimistic about the many ways their creation could impact society. He told the media that he had researched ceramic plasticity for three decades, and these findings were the most significant of his career.
The wonder material could find use in the automobile industry where the superb insulating properties of a ceramic engine would result in more favourable combustion conditions, increased performance and fewer emissions. A ceramic engine would also weigh less than its more traditional alloy counterpart.
Aerospace engineers may also seek to use the new ceramic in their spacecraft as it could better withstand the extreme heat rocket components are subjected to during take-off and re-entry.
Chen’s ceramic is also antibacterial and biocompatible and could present a better alternative for joint-replacement patients whose steel and alloy joint stand-ins often need replacing. A ceramic joint could remain in working order for the remainder of the patient’s life, according to Chen.
The futuristic material is robust enough to withstand some of the harshest stresses. In addition, ball bearings for massive wind turbines would last substantially longer and withstand the extreme weight of the blade and motor combination.
Erkka Frankberg of Finland’s Tampere University said that Chen’s work could lead to a ceramic that could match the lightest and strongest alloys used today.
Chen and the Tsinghua research unit will continue developing the material. He told media that the door had been opened and that there was a “broad world behind” it.