US engineers hail ceramic 3D printing "breakthrough"

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Researchers in the US have developed a ceramic processing technique that uses 3D printing to create exceptionally complex, tough and heat resistant ceramic components.

The team, from HRL laboratories in Malibu, California claims that the new process offers huge advantages over existing production techniques and could open up a range of new applications for ceramic components.

At the heart of the technique is a resin formulation that can be used with Stereolithography (SLA) an additive process that builds up a component layer by layer using a medium curable with a laser.

Once the component has been printed in this way, it is fired in a high temperature kiln, which converts the cured resin into a ceramic.

According to HRL’s Senior Chemical Engineer Zak Eckel the resulting material can withstand temperatures in excess of 1700°C and is up to ten times stronger than similar materials.

The technique – which is detailed in the latest issue of Science - is claimed to have huge advantages over existing processes.

Traditionally, ceramic parts are consolidated from powders by sintering, which introduces porosity and limits both achievable shapes and final strength. Such component are brittle and can fall apart under machining, limiting their application.

3D printing, which offers a big leap in geometrical flexibility, potentially offers a way around this. However the high melting point of many ceramics has hitherto made it difficult to 3D print ceramic components.

"With our new 3D printing process we can take full advantage of the many desirable properties of this silicon oxycarbide ceramic, including high hardness, strength and temperature capability as well as resistance to abrasion and corrosion," said program manager Dr. Tobias Schaedler.

The team claims that the process and material could be used in a wide range of applications from large components in jet engines and hypersonic vehicles to intricate parts in microelectromechanical systems and electronic device packaging.

HRL- which is jointly owned by Boeing and General motors - is currently looking for a commercialisation partner for this technology.