30/10/2015 | Technology
The strength of transference
Ceramic materials are a great branch of engineering. One CONICET institute studies them to strengthen their transference to the productive sector.
Alberto Scian, principal researcher at the CONICET. Photo: CONICET photography.

n everyday life, we are surrounded by ceramic materials: bricks, cement, glass even tooth transplant are only some examples of thousands of objects that are produced with ceramic systems. These materials, hard and fragile, have been used for about 25 thousands of years. Some of them are good electrical and thermal insulators, whereas other have certain electric and thermal conductivity, what makes mechanical properties change according to the type of material developed. As ceramics have all these properties, they are widely used by several industries.

“Materials are classified into three general groups: the metals and their alloys, organic materials that can be synthetic or natural, and ceramics. In order to know
the group a material belongs to, we should ask: is it organic? Is it metallic?, if the answer of those two questions is no, it is a ceramic”, Alberto Scian, principal CONICET researcher at the Centro Tecnológico de Recursos Minerales y Cerámica (CETMIC, CONICET-CIC) [Technology Centre of Mineral Resources and Ceramics]

The CETMIC has a long history in scientific research into the field of ceramic materials and/or raw materials to obtain a final product. Besides, this institution has conducted studies and led technological developments for the industry.
In order to provide the productive sector with better support, the Centre has a department of services for third parties where it receives companies’ requests and other research centres to perform some tests and develop products.

“We cover almost all aspects of the ceramic, within the areas of expertise of each researcher. At our centre, scientists are going to study and develop new products and modify the ones that are being produced. Furthermore, there will be research into new materials and analysis of others so as to modify their performance”, the researcher affirms.

Regarding that, Scian explains that since 1977 and thanks to the outlook of its creator, Dr. Krenkel, the objective of the CETMIC has been the technology transference apart from basic research. All studies aim to have potential transference.

“When a company brought a query, Dr. Krendel would tell them: ‘you have to help me with this, study it.’ He was the behind the technology transfer initiative. We were taught with that tradition and we maintain it. As time went by, we noticed that subjects of some studies with potential transference were consulted whether immediately or years later, and in some cases there were clients asking for services or developments that ended up in doctoral thesis”, the scientist comments.

It is really varied the category of companies that the CETMIC works with. Besides, they resort to the Centre as a reference to perform tests. The services offered by the institution are: characterization of raw material to produce ceramic material, trials under certain standards with unique equipment and measurement of physicochemical, mechanical or thermo-mechanical properties of the material developed.

The researcher emphasises the role of the economic situation in the cases of technology transference. He stresses the public policies of the last few years in terms of support for technology and science research that help to boost and place Argentine industry nationally and globally.

One of the most notorious transference cases is the one about a company that produces refractory materials, i.e. materials that can withstand high temperatures, erosion, abrasion, impact, chemical attack and the action of corrosive gases. These tend to be used in the construction of furnaces used in glass, steel, aluminium, petro chemistry industries, among others. Each production technology demands specific materials.

“One Argentine company used national raw material to provide refractory materials to glass industry. In the 90s, with the import crisis, that company was about to close so they asked us for help. We noticed that the work the enterprise made was fine but the materials were not well used: it produced excellent pieces but the material was not good. We studied the formulations it used to create them and finally it did not close, it nowadays provides material developed at the CETMIC to the national market, Latin America, Australia and China. We preserve a close link with the company and today we are very proud to say that more than 90 per cent of the glass produced in Argentina, either flat pieces, cups or bottles, etc, at some point touched one material produced by us”, Scian explains.

The chemist comments that another research team at the Centre studies the functionalization of related ceramic materials or raw material to repair the environment. It is modified clays that help to absorb waste of different industries such as the textile or the fruit and vegetable ones. Another joint project with the Facultad de Ingeniería de la Universidad Nacional del Centro de la Provincia de Buenos Aires consists in using them to produce ecological Portland cement.

“We study the development of new materials and classify it completely to ensure compliance with the specifications required at a national or international level”, Scian comments. Regarding that, he adds that the Centre assists a company that produces advanced dental prosthesis with nanotechnology in order to replace imported materials by national processing.

Dental materials are novel. This is an enterprise that imports a powder from Germany to press it and then make a preform with a zirconium oxide material. One CETMIC researcher who studied this particle in Japan took that query and with his knowledge, he conducts a research to obtain zirconium oxide performs with higher fracture toughness than the conventional ones by using nanotechnology.

What can the CETMIC offer to a company’s query?

The query is received by the laboratory head of the third party services and asks the person the information he or she needs. If it is a routine service, the samples are received and the proper tests are conducted according to the needs of the query. If there is another type of question, a group devoted to services to third parties calls the CETMIC researchers who are experts on that subject and they study the problem and design a work plan and a respective budget to conduct the necessary research or the technological development. If the client accepts them, the study is performed with also advice on the scope thereof.

“It is an interdisciplinary job between the members of the institution. It is at the third party service department, where all lines of research get together to reach a possible transference”, Scian states.

Equipment

The CETMIC has almost unique equipment in the country, for instance a mercury porosimeter that measures the pore size distribution in a solid and rigid material. Just to mention one example, the tests conducted with this equipment are demanded by the ceramic material industry and are also used by a food company to analyse the porosity of pastas, such as fideos. Furthermore, the Centre is a leader in thermal equipment; it has furnaces that enable the processing of materials to 1600º C, plus instrumental to evaluate materials at very high temperatures.

When scientists describe a piece, they study their physicochemical, thermo-mechanical, micro-structural and textural properties through a battery of tests that combine different techniques. Thus they offer a comprehensive evaluation of the material, providing enough information to know whether or not to answer the requirments of use.

By Cecilia Leone