Material researchers awarded £18.3 million to create technical ceramics of the future

Credit: Vesuvius

Advanced materials specialists at the University of Leicester have been awarded part of an £18.3 million grant to enhance technical ceramics of the future through innovative computer modelling techniques.

Research led by Professor Jingzhe Pan of the University’s School of Engineering, supported by Dr Stephen Ison of the Research and Enterprise Division, will receive £1.9 million of the grant from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)’s Strength in Places Fund over the next four years.

Their work, to create a ‘digital twin’ of the sintering process used to fabricate technical ceramics, applies computer simulation and in-process monitoring of complex manufacturing processes to precisely control the dimensions and properties of ceramic components for use in high-technology applications such as the aerospace sector.

The project contributes to the wider Midlands Industrial Ceramics Group (MICG), chaired by Rolls Royce, and forms part of a collaborative consortium between materials scientists at Lucideon, Birmingham, Leicester and Loughborough universities and other industrial partners. 

Professor Pan, Chair in Mechanics of Materials and Dean of Dalian Leicester International Institute, said: “We are really excited to continue our cutting-edge ceramic research through this collaborative project in the Midlands.

“As lead for the work stream dedicated to digital twinning, we will be able to expand our work on predicting the behaviour of ceramic materials, delivering a more efficient and ultimately more sustainable manufacturing process.

“We also look forward to joining forces with our academic and industrial partners on the project. This work helps to put the Midlands on a unique footing as a global centre of excellence for advanced technical ceramics.”

Credit: Precision Ceramics

Technical ceramics, which are also referred to as advanced ceramics, are embedded in numerous high-performing products owing to their high strength, high operating temperatures, wear resistance and tailorable properties, and are replacing metals in many applications.

They are vital ‘enablers’ for many engineering systems in energy, health, aerospace, and the automotive industry. The global advanced ceramics market is projected to reach £143 billion by 2023.

In space, the most common use for advanced ceramics is found in thermal protection systems, heat shields or other protective coatings due to their low heat conductivity. Closer to home, medical-grade ceramics are used in applications such as hip replacements.

Leicester researchers are considered world leaders for their work on computer modelling of ceramic processing, which aims to boost efficiency in the manufacturing of ceramics through modelling the microstructural and shape evolution.

Currently, a high proportion of technical ceramics are either rejected at the quality control stage or subjected to excessive post-sintering machining due to the extremely fine margins for error demanded by their high tech applications.

Ian Edmonds, of Rolls-Royce, is the chair of the MICG. He said: “This is great news for the Midlands. Advanced ceramics are often unseen but vital components of jet engines, electronics, medical devices, car batteries, other energy technologies and many more manufactured products.

“They allow products to operate at higher temperatures, in more challenging environments and can last longer than plastic or metal equivalents.

“Globally, the advanced ceramics sector is projected to be worth £143 billion by 2023, and the outcome of this funding means the Midlands is well-placed to be part of it.”

With a focus on positioning the Midlands as a world leader in advanced ceramics, the MICG is drawing on industry and academia to make the region a magnet for international investment.

According to the group, this will ultimately contribute towards growth of 4,200 jobs in the region by 2030.

The SIPF funding, combined with partner investment and the creation of new business opportunities, will together make the MICG programme a £42.1 million project.