‘Superfast’ New Ceramic Manufacturing Method Could Lead to AI-Driven Materials Design

May 07, 2020 by Luke James

Scientists at the University of Maryland are said to have reinvented a 26,000-year-old manufacturing process into an innovative approach to fabricating ceramic materials for applications that include AI-driven materials design.

The “reinvention” of the ceramics firing process could be used by artificial intelligence (AI) to create new materials with a broad range of applications that include 3D printing among solid-state batteries and fuel cells. 

This is according to the University of Maryland (UMD) researchers who claim to have developed a new technique that they are calling “an ultrafast temperature sintering method that both meets the needs of modern ceramics and fosters the discovery of new material innovations.”


Speedy Ceramic Sintering

The problem with conventional sintering techniques is that they take a long time. First, it requires several hours to heat the furnace up to a suitable temperature and then several hours more to ‘bake’ the ceramic material and make it more durable. Not only is this process lengthy but it is also problematic for the applications that the material can be used for, such as solid-state batteries. And while there are alternative sintering technologies, these are also very limited, often because they are expensive or material-specific, or both. 


The Secret Behind the "Ultrafast" Sintering Methods

Described in the research study, the team’s innovation of ultrafast high-temperature sintering offers high heating and cooling rates, even temperature distribution, and sintering temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Celsius. When combined, these processes make the process 1,000 times faster, reducing ‘baking’ times to as low as 10 seconds. 

“With this invention, we ‘sandwiched’ a pressed green pellet of ceramic precursor powders between two strips of carbon that quickly heated the pellet through radiation and conduction, creating a consistent high-temperature environment that forced the ceramic powder to solidify quickly,” said Professor Liangbing Hu, who led the study. 

The temperature is high enough to sinter any ceramic material and the process can be extended beyond ceramics.


UHS-sintered ceramic pellet.

A photograph of a UHS-sintered ceramic pellet. Image credited to Liangbing Hu's team at the University of Maryland


Improving Ceramics for Electronics Applications

Ceramics are an important class of materials for electronics because of their high thermal, mechanical, and chemical stability.

If the Maryland team’s research and sintering method are as it sounds, it could lead to better materials screening rates that are not limited by the long processing times and poor computational control that the conventional sintering method is hindered by.

This, in turn, will lead to the development of improved ceramics that could be used in a wider range of applications such as those already mentioned. 


A Breakthrough in Sintering Technologies 

Ultrafast high-temperature sintering represents a breakthrough in sintering technologies, not only because of its general applicability to a broad range of functional materials but also due to a great potential of creating non-equilibrium bulk materials via retaining or generating extra defects.

One potential application that could dramatically change materials science is that of AI-driven materials discovery. "This new method solves the key bottleneck problem in computation and AI-guided materials discovery," said Yifei Mo, an associate professor at UMD. "We've enabled a new paradigm for materials discovery with an unprecedented accelerated pace."