Pore-free Ceramics in Lasers, Electronics and Biomedical Implants

Gary L. Messing, distinguished professor of ceramic science and engineering, and his group at Pennsylvania State University, are developing a brand new class of ceramics that are so pure and perfectly transparent, they can be used as a substitute for crystals in solid-state lasers.

Unlike traditional ceramics–such as your favorite coffee mug–materials scientists like Messing focus on what’s called advanced ceramics. These have unique mechanical, electrical, optical or thermal properties that make them useful in all sorts of applications.

Advanced ceramics are already used in catalytic converters in cars, protective tiles covering the space shuttle, and electronic components in a desktop computer. In medical applications, advanced ceramics are used as the ball in hip replacements.

There are endless possibilities for taking advantage of the unique qualities of advanced ceramics. Many applications are limited, however, by tiny holes, called pores, which scatter light and make them opaque or translucent. Pores can also make the ceramic too brittle and ruin the flow of electrons and /or heat through the material.

“As a result of advances in ceramic processing science, we can now produce extremely high purity ceramics with almost no defects or pores,” Messing said.

How “perfect” are the new ceramics? In their recent article, “Toward Pore-free Ceramics,” published in the Oct. 17, 2008, edition of Science, Messing and co-author Adam J. Stevenson reported a new method of making ceramic crystals that are over 99.999 percent free of pores.

At this level of density, there are usually only a few hundred tiny pores left in the researchers’ samples after processing. And those pores that remain are generally only 10 to a few hundred nanometers in diameter–about five times smaller than the width of a human hair.

To make such dense ceramics, the scientists use synthetic powders, because they are much purer than clays and other materials mined from the Earth. “We start with a very fine powder, form that powder into a desired shape, and then heat the formed powder to create a solid, dense body,” said Messing.

This heating process, called sintering, happens at temperatures below the material’s melting point. So without liquefying the material, sintering allows atoms in the powder to move around and fill in the spaces between the individual grains.

Soap-bubble Ceramics

“As we sinter a ceramic, the average size of the grains increases, because the larger grains slowly consume the smaller grains,” said Messing. “You can visualize this process at home by making soap bubbles in the sink. If you watch carefully, the larger bubbles in the foam will absorb the smaller bubbles.”

According to Messing, soap bubble observations like these actually helped materials scientists figure out some aspects of creating ceramics decades ago. “The physics behind ‘grain growth’ in both soap bubbles and ceramics are identical,” he said. “It just happens on a much smaller scale and at higher temperatures in ceramics.”