Ceramic Structures

As discussed in the introduction, ceramics and related materials cover a wide range of objects. Ceramics are a little more complex than metallic structures, which is why metals were covered first. A ceramic has traditionally been defined as “an inorganic, nonmetallic solid that is prepared from powdered materials and is fabricated into products through the application of heat. Most ceramics are made up of two or more elements. This is called a compound. For example, alumina (Al2O3) is a compound made up of aluminum atoms and oxygen atoms.

The two most common chemical bonds for ceramic materials are covalent and ionic. The bonding of atoms together is much stronger in covalent and ionic bonding than in metallic. This is why ceramics generally have the following properties: high hardness, high compressive strength, and chemical inertness. This strong bonding also accounts for the less attractive properties of ceramics, such as low ductility and low tensile strength. The absence of free electrons is responsible for making most ceramics poor conductors of electricity and heat.

However, it should be noted that the crystal structures of ceramics are many and varied and this results in a very wide range of properties. For example, while ceramics are perceived as electrical and thermal insulators, ceramic oxide (initially based on Y-Ba-Cu-O) is the basis for high temperature superconductivity. Diamond and silicon carbide have a higher thermal conductivity than aluminum or copper. Control of the microstructure can overcome inherent stiffness to allow the production of ceramic springs, and ceramic composites which have been produced with a fracture toughness about half that of steel. Also, the atomic structures are often of low symmetry that gives some ceramics interesting electromechanical properties like piezoelectricity, which is used in sensors and transducers.

The structure of most ceramics varies from relatively simple to very complex. The microstructure can be entirely glassy (glasses only); entirely crystalline; or a combination of crystalline and glassy. In the latter case, the glassy phase usually surrounds small crystals, bonding them together. The main compositional classes of engineering ceramics are the oxides, nitrides and carbides.