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Small-Scale Ceramics Materials Engineered for Flexibility

Christopher Schuh

Christopher Schuh (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Materials scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore created a new type of ceramics material with the ability to bend like metal, but retaining its strength. The team from the lab of MIT’s Christopher Schuh published its findings today in the journal Science (paid subscription required).

The MIT-Singapore researchers developed a process for giving tiny pieces of zirconia the ability to bend, but also to return to their original shape when heated. This shape-memory property is seen in metals and some polymers, says Schuh in an MIT statement, but not previously in ceramics known for their brittleness and tendency to crack under stress.

The researchers were able to give zirconia these properties by keeping the objects exceedingly small. They created in the lab filaments only about one micron — 1 millionth of a meter — in diameter. In general, the smaller the object, the more resistant it is to cracking. In addition, the team kept the objects they created within a single crystalline grain, removing the opportunity to crack along granular boundaries, where cracking is most likely to occur.

As graduate student and first author Alan Lai notes, the samples prepared by the researchers were able to deform as much as 7 to 8 percent of their size. adding that normal ceramics cannot bend even 1 percent without cracking. And while the samples were confined to very small sizes, they would considered sufficiently large for nanoscale applications.

For example, says Lai, ” these materials could be important tools for those developing micro- and nanodevices, such as for biomedical applications,” including “microactuators to trigger actions within such devices — such as the release of drugs from tiny implants.” In addition, the researchers say, the techniques employed with their zirconia samples could be applied to other ceramic materials.

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