Researchers develop thermoformable ceramics, “a new frontier in materials”

The new ceramic material can be compression molded to fit cell phones and other heat-emitting electronics. Credit: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

It was one of those happy accidents of science. Northeast Professor Randall Erb and Ph.D. Student Jason Bice was working on a product for a university client and ended up with a whole new class of hardware.

Their discovery of an all-ceramic that can be compression molded into complex parts – an industry breakthrough – could transform the design and construction of heat-emitting electronics, including cell phones and other radio components. .

“Our research group lives at the cutting edge of technology,” says Erb, an associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering who directs the DAPS lab at Northeastern. “Things often break, and once in a while one of those breaks turns out to be good fortune.”

Last July, Erb was in his Northeast lab with Bice, who has since earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering. They were testing an experimental ceramic compound as part of a hypersonic project for an industrial partner when something seemed to go wrong.

“We blew it with a blowtorch, and while we were loading it, it deformed unexpectedly and fell off the fixture,” Erb says. “We looked at the sample on the ground thinking it was a failure.”

Further examination yielded a revelation.

“We realized it was perfectly intact,” Erb says. “It was just shaped differently.”

Researchers are developing thermoformable ceramics, "a new frontier in materials"

Credit: Northeastern University

Ceramics tend to fracture (or even explode) in thermal shock when subjected to extreme heat changes and mechanical loading. But their sample had deformed gracefully.

“We tried several times and realized that we could control the deformation,” says Erb. “And then we started compression molding the material and found that it was a very quick process.”

Its underlying microstructure allows the all-ceramic to transmit heat quickly and flow efficiently during the molding process. Ceramics can be formed into exquisite geometries and exhibit impressive mechanical strength and thermal conductivity at room temperature, says Erb, whose findings were recently published in Advanced materials.

Erb and Bice are developing the product through their startup, Fourier LLC, named after French mathematician Joseph Fourier, who studied heat flow in ceramics two centuries ago. Fourier received a $50,000 Spark Fund award from Northeastern’s Center for Research Innovation.

“It’s unique: thermoformable ceramic, from what we’ve seen and read, doesn’t really exist,” explains Bice. “So it’s a new frontier in materials.”

The new product has the potential to introduce two improvements to the industry, starting with its effectiveness as a heat conductor capable of cooling high-density electronic components.

In general, mobile phones and other electronic devices are equipped with a thick layer of aluminum, which is necessary to conduct heat away from the device.

Researchers are developing thermoformable ceramics, "a new frontier in materials"

Credit: Northeastern University

“Our material can be less than a millimeter thick, which presents a discrete solution,” Bice explains. “It can be molded to fit the surface you’re trying to cool.”

The phononic crystal-based ceramic allows heat to flow without transporting electrons, Erb explains. It does not interfere with radio frequencies (RF) from cell phones and other systems.

“If you put an aluminum heatsink in an RF component, you’ve basically introduced a series of antennas to interact with the RF signal,” Erb explains. “Instead, we can put our boron nitride material in and around an RF component and it’s essentially invisible to the RF signal.”

The other improvement, Erb says, is that it can be adjusted directly to the electrical component. Echo St. Germain, a fifth-year mechanical engineering student at Northeastern who is a ceramics researcher and R&D engineer at Fourier, demonstrated the non-Newtonian behavior of ceramics by subjecting an agglomerated slurry to vibrations normal to the manufacturing process. ; it instantly liquefies and organizes the structure of matter. Such slurries are used to produce moldable ceramics.

Erb and Bice believe they will be able to adapt all-ceramic materials to all kinds of electrical components. Ceramic will be thinner, lighter and more efficient than the metals currently in use.

Le Bice helped launch the startup from Munich, where his wife started a new job.

“Launching a Boston-based company while I’m in Germany adds some interesting complications to things, but also opportunities,” says Bice, who along with Erb is engaged in finding clients in Europe and the United States.

New glass-ceramic emits light when subjected to mechanical stress

More information:
Jason E. Bice et al, Boron Nitride Thermoformable Ceramic, Advanced materials (2022). DOI: 10.1002/adma.202203939

Provided by Northeastern University

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