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Ceramic Materials Overview

The study of ceramic materials is at the center of all ceramic technology. While knowing the chemistry of materials gives you control of most of the fired properties of glazes, knowing the physical and fired properties of materials gives you control of both fired and unfired properties of bodies (and of course of the physical properties of glaze slurries). In education students study theoretical materials, in industry we work directly with real-world materials, we can see them and touch them. These materials normally come in bags, they are powders and we understand their properties from this view (not from the rocks they once were in a quarry). They have plasticities, melting temperatures, particle size distributions, vitrification histories, solubility or solubles contents, impurities, consistency issues, rheological properties, bulk densities, particle surface areas, costs, etc.

Materials science needs to be put into context with all the levels of assessment: oxide, mineral, material, recipe and process. For example, consider the problem of ware cracking during drying, a body issue (not likely related to chemistry). The problem could be as simple as ware being dried unevenly, a process level problem. If the cracking is occurring because the body has been formulated with too much ball clay to make it practical to dry, that is a recipe level issue. If the cracking is occurring because one material has changed or been substituted, perhaps to a much smaller particle size alternative, that is a material level issue. If the cause of the problem is difficult to asses, then the mineralogy of the ingredient materials and their interactions may need to be studied and understood better to solve the problem.

In many cases the causes of a problem have roots on multiple levels. Amazingly, this affords the opportunity to link apparently separate problems occurring on multiple levels and solve them all at once. Consider the issue of a glaze slurry that is settling quickly, powdering after drying and failing to adhere well to ware, these are happening because of lack of clay content. This problem is probably directly related to the fact that the glaze is also running off ware during firing (likely due to lack of Al2O3 and SiO2 in the glaze). Adding kaolin (which supplies both) will help suspend and harden the glaze and it will help stabilize it during firing, solving all the problems. In addition the glaze will also be more durable and less soluble.

In this materials area of the database we avoid discussing too much about chemistry, this is done in the oxides area. For example, on the material level we see kaolin as clay powder that contributes plasticity to a body and suspension properties to a glaze (while of course contributing Al2O3 and SiO2 to the chemistry of the glaze and a mullite building source to the body). On the mineral level it is kaolinite, its properties compare to other clays in relation to its particle size and shape, surface chemistry on the particles, etc. On the chemistry level it is no longer kaolin, it is Al2O3 and SiO2, therefore studying its effects on glazes involves studying these two oxides. However there a limitations to this 'materials as chemistry sources' view, different materials of the same chemistry do not release their oxides into a melt with the same willingness. These differences can be answered on the mineral level.

The concept of distinguishing between generic materials and name-brand materials enables maintaining general information in fewer places. For example, all generic information about kaolin can be found in the generic kaolin record. Other name-brand kaolins are linked to the generic kaolin as their parent and only information specific or unique to them is recorded there. Generic kaolin is, in turn, linked to the mineral kaolinite.

If you have studied or compared data sheets over a period of time then you know how many errors they can have, how unclear they can be, how non-applicable or non-practical their data is for ceramic applications and how drastically numbers can change as companies update them. This underscores the importance of being able to test these materials for yourself to know the behaviour for specific properties that relate to your application.


By Tony Hansen

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