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A Tougher Ceramic

Jan. 9, 2009
Researchers create material that mimics mother of pearl.

Taking their cues from nature, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory say they have mimicked the structure of mother of pearl to create a tougher ceramic.

"We have emulated nature's toughening mechanisms to make ice-templated alumina hybrids that are comparable in specific strength and toughness to aluminum alloys," says Berkeley Lab's Robert Ritchie, who led the team of researchers. "We believe these model materials can be used to identify key microstructural features that should guide the future synthesis of bio-inspired, yet non-biological, lightweight structural materials with unique strength and toughness."

Through the controlled freezing of suspensions in water of an aluminum oxide (alumina) and the addition of polymer polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA), the scientists say they have produced ceramics 300 times tougher than their constituent components.

Robert Ritchie (seated) and his team lead Berkeley Lab's effort to create a tougher ceramic by mimicking nature.In their latest research, Ritchie and the team expanded on advances made two years ago, when researchers developed a method to improve the strength of bone substitutes through a technique that involves freezing seawater. The freeze-casting technique has been refined and applied to the alumina/PMMA hybrid to create large porous ceramic scaffolds that more closely mirror the complex hierarchical microstructure of nacre, or mother of pearl.

The next step in creating tougher ceramics, say the researchers, is to improve the proportion of ceramic to polymer in their composites, and to replace the PMMA with a better polymer. Ultimately the aim is to eventually replace the polymer content with metal.

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