In their ever expanding drive to create a more sustainable military, the various branches of the U.S. armed forces have entered some interesting new territories, from wastewater recycling to weed-powered jet planes (okay so biofuel powered jet planes). Now the U.S. Army Research Office has upped the ante with funding for a new technology that could drastically reduce the energy consumed by ceramics manufacturing.
At first glance the Army’s interest in ceramics may seem somewhat off base but in addition to its usefulness in the manufacture of coffee mugs, ceramic material plays a significant role in military equipment such as ceramic body armor and heat shields, as well as numerous other uses including insulators and spark plugs.
Electric Fields and Superplastic Ceramics
The new breakthrough was developed by researchers at North Carolina State University. They found that when a relatively small electric field is applied to a crystalline material such as ceramics, the material becomes superplastic, meaning that it can be reshaped without applying much force. In fact, the researchers found that superplastic ceramics can be reformed practically without any force at all. If the technology can be developed commercially, it could have widespread application and lead to a significant energy savings in the ceramics industry. In particular, the research team plans to work on developing a more energy efficient, lower cost process for manufacturing higher quality body armor.
Ceramics and the Sustainable Future
Ceramics and people have a long and close history together so it will be interesting to see how the new technology combines with other ceramics developments in the new millenium. At Georgia Tech, for example, researchers are working on a new ceramic material that could lead to more efficient solid oxide fuel cells. In Russia, research is progressing on a new ceramic nanocoating that could replace toxic anti-corrosion chemicals with more sustainable versions.
Electric Fields and Magnets
The use of electric fields to enhance or replace conventional processes has a parallel partner in magnetic fields, which are also being used to create more sustainable products and technologies. A magnet-based “liquid solder” is being developed to replace lead solder, and at Columbia University researchers just received a $2.8 million grant to develop new energy efficient computer chips using nanomagnets.
Image: Potter by Manish Bansal on flickr.com.