Ceramic Manufacturing: Unlocking Our Past, Building Our Future

by Breana Cronk, IQS Editor

Having graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology, I have grown accustomed to the fact that some of the things that I find most fascinating in this world may be a little bland to those around me. Conversations about ancient plant residue, migration theory, bones and ritual oddly enough do not always seem to pan out unless speaking with a professor or classmate. One area of cultural study that reaches beyond this limited group, however, is ceramic manufacturing. Museums around the world cater to public interest showcasing beautiful pots and figurines made of this inorganic, non-metal mineral compound which was first used as long ago as 24,000 BC. Though vast and impressive, our fascination with the material is not limited to its elegant history. The present and prospective future of ceramics introduces as much if not more intrigue than its well documented past.

Museum showcase of ceramic artifacts.

After centuries and even millennia of use as decorative pieces and well used containers, the industrial revolution of the mid-1800’s brought ceramic manufacturing into the modern era. Today, industrial ceramics are widely used in a number of applications. The crystalline structure of ceramics combines such valued properties as extreme hardness, wear and corrosion resistance, good thermal conductivity and strength all within a light weight material. Harder than titanium, more resistant to corrosion than stainless steel and lighter weight than aluminum; ceramic has become somewhat of a super material. Though slightly more expensive than their metallic or polymeric counterparts, ceramic components such as ceramic rods, tubes, balls and bearings are used in the daily operations of automotive, power generation, aerospace, food processing, chemical, construction, military, medical and dental industries to name a few.

Photo courtesy of T.Q. Abrasive Machining.

The reason for the extra expense of ceramic parts and components is largely due to the energy intensive processes used to create them. Ceramic manufacturing begins with grinding or crushing the raw clay materials into highly purified powders to which other powders or stabilizers are often added in order to augment the natural features of the ceramics. The evenly mixed formula can then be slip cast, extruded, injection molded, fused, fired or sintered into a complete part. High heat is needed to form bonds between the resistant granules and create simple or complex items such as ceramic armor and insulators. In a time when energy and fuel prices are at a premium, the aforementioned processes drive up the cost of finished ceramic parts. To combat this, researchers across the nation have been commissioned by private manufacturers and even the United States Army to provide more sustainable ceramic manufacturing by exploring avenues such as employing electrical fields to produce superplastic ceramics that are reshaped with minimal force and the production of engineering grade ceramics such as silicon carbide.

With ceramics increasingly pervasive in everyday life as well as advanced and highly technical procedures, it becomes more and more important that they be produced in a sustainable fashion. Though not easily recycled, the longevity of ceramic products far surpasses that of their metallic or polymer counterparts. In fact, many of today’s ceramics may wind up being found millennia from now, continuing the archaeological importance of the material. While the study of ancient ceramics helps both anthropologists and archaeologists understand where we come from and potentially where we have been, the modern uses and explorations of ceramic possibilities will no doubt determine where we are going.

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