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Engineers finding new uses for industrial ceramics at Penn State-Behrend College

Engineers at Penn State's Erie campus, The Behrend College, have developed two new processes for shaping industrial materials, and one of them may reshape the market for ceramics--a material commonly molded in simple forms that resist heat and electrical current. Their insights may soon transform the clunky character of most ceramic products from ugly ducklings to supple swans.

Through the school's Applied Energy Research Center, a Ben Franklin Technology Partnership startup, researchers have patented a process for forming ceramic materials into complex, thin-walled, and hollow one-piece assemblies that are able to function at temperatures over 2,200 degrees F. Storm LLC shares the patent with Penn State and plans to form a new company around the process, according to Ken Fisher, director of the center. One application would be in custom-designed heat exchangers for furnaces.

"We think we can save a lot of companies that use natural gas for combustion up to about 25 percent of natural gas costs," Fisher says. "It's an innovative technology that could go quick to market."

Thin-walled ceramic devices shaped into a variety of forms could also be useful in fuel cells and industrial boiler systems, Fisher says. Hollow ceramic materials could become nozzles, burners, injectors, and other industrial devices for use at very high temperatures.  

The Center's other material-shaping innovation pulses electrical currents through metals, such as aluminum, as they are being processed. Current-pulsed metals require less force to press and are easier to machine, and those benefits save energy and reduce manufacturing costs. Pulsing-current also eliminates so-called "spring back," which causes metal to assume unwanted shapes. Most metals also carry stamping stresses after they are shaped, but pulsing appears to protect the metal from such changes in structural properties.

One clear sign of large-market interest in this process innovation: Ford Motor Co. has licensed the process for automobile manufacturing applications.  

Source: Applied Energy Research Center, Ken Fisher
Writer: Joseph Plummer

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