As companies pursue greener technologies, ceramics may replace the use of rare-earth metals for electronic components.

Manufacturing Blog: Ceramic Materials Advance Climate Change Efforts

Jan 27, 2022

by Carlos M. Gonzalez

Many countries and companies worldwide are hoping to reduce their carbon footprint by adopting net-zero technologies. These new technologies focus mainly on electronics and energy, increasing the demand for rare-earth metals. However, ceramics might become the key material player in a net-zero future.
Net-zero technologies require increased use of electronic systems and hardware. IoT systems have increased in smart cities, creating data-enriched systems for public lighting, transportation, and communications. An increasing number of electric vehicles (EVs) and wireless technology have pushed battery development forward.
The demand for materials such as copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt, and magnesium is now in high demand as a result. These metals are used in advanced batteries, metal alloys, and electric hardware. They can be found in most EVs, computers, and wireless devices.

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Mining facilities are investing in more digs to meet the demand. This increase in drilling and mining could potentially be counterproductive in reducing climate change since it will produce more pollutants and waste.
“Building a low-carbon economy and reducing the emissions intensity within these sectors will be materials-intensive. For example, generating one terawatt-hour of electricity from solar and wind could consume, respectively, 300 percent and 200 percent more metals than generating the same number of terawatt-hours from a gas-fired power plant, on a copper-equivalent basis,” said a recent report from McKinsey & Company.
The overall carbon emission impact from harvesting more rare-earth metals will ultimately depend on the entire production process. Still, the clear risk is that more mining will result in more pollution and higher carbon emissions.
An alternative to using rare-earth metals is ceramics.
The recent study “Ceramics Market Forecast, Trend Analysis & Competition Tracking” from Fact.MR, highlighted how technical ceramics could be used in place of rare-earth metals.
Ceramic-based components can handle extreme temperatures and mechanical stresses, which is why they can be found within various industries, including power plants, turbines, solar energy systems, and electric cars. The demand for ceramics in the electrical industry is extremely high, especially due to the rise of EVs. Ceramic capacitors are popular amongst passive electronics, which control the electron flow within a circuit. The demand for optimal efficiency systems has increased the demand for passive electronics and ceramic material.
The best aspect about using ceramics is the abundance of their raw materials. The primary raw production of ceramics consists of clay and silica, which are very common. It is also possible to recycle large amounts of tiles to convert into ceramic material.  

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For additive manufacturing (AM) companies, the ceramics market is also seeing significant growth. According to Johannes Homa, CEO of Lithoz, an additive manufacturing supplier that specializes in ceramics, there significant potential in the use of ceramics. 
“Here at Lithoz, we are seeing a big surge of interest in the power of ceramics. The desirable material properties of ceramics, when combined with the manufacturing possibilities of 3D printing, allow for far more complex and fine geometries. This is opening the door to entirely new applications, including applications entering serial production,” Homa said in a recent interview with 3D Printing Industry.
Within the additive manufacturing industry, the use of ceramics in 3D printing is just the beginning. Many AM firms are still understanding its true potential. Besides electronic components, ceramics are used as a replacement for fasteners and machine cutting tools. According to IDTechEx, the ceramic market is expected to grow to $400 million by 2032.
By using ceramics instead of rare-earth metals, countries could reduce reliance on importing rare materials and the amount of mining done globally. This would provide an added benefit for climate change initiatives by promoting net-zero technologies while reducing manufacturing pollution and carbon emissions.
Carlos M. González is special projects manager.

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