Improved 3D Printing Compatibility Could Broaden the Use of Ceramics in Industrial Manufacturing

A Carnegie Mellon engineer’s prize-winning research could redefine what’s possible for 3D printing materials.

Ceramics printing could soon move beyond the scope of coffee mugs and kitchenware. (Image courtesy of

Ceramics printing could soon move beyond the scope of coffee mugs and kitchenware. (Image courtesy of

The spectrum of materials that can be used in 3D printing applications is widening. While 3D printing has traditionally been dominated by metals and polymers, new research is exploring the potential of a little-used but versatile class of 3D printing building block: ceramics. Among the most innovative pioneers in this emerging discipline has been Carnegie Mellon University’s B. Reeja Jayan. Last month, in recognition of her work in ceramics engineering, the National Science Foundation presented Jayan with its 2018 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program Award. Her research, now supported by the half-million-dollar grant that came with the CAREER award, could have far-reaching implications for manufacturing in a variety of industries.

Eliminating the Limitations of Ceramics as 3D-Printed Materials

Ceramics, a sweeping term that encompasses a multitude of inorganic, nonmetallic solids, are typically manufactured by molding materials and then exposing them to extremely high temperatures. The classic example, of course, is clay pottery, a manufacturing technique that stretches back millennia. While the processes that are used to make industrial-class ceramics today don’t bear much resemblance to ancient pot-making, one key limitation remains: they require a lot of heat. At scale, using ceramics in industries like aerospace, healthcare and transportation hasn’t made sense because of the tremendous energy required to heat that volume of material. Jayan’s research looks poised to disrupt that paradigm.

Video: Jayan discusses her work, focusing on the possibilities presented by the molecular manipulation of 3D printing materials.

Rather than focusing on heat, Jayan has been studying ways to use electromagnetic waves to manipulate the molecular composition of ceramics. While the details of her research haven’t yet been published, the scientist herself had some insight to share in the video above. She hopes that, through exposure to electromagnetic radiation, various 3D printing materials could gain entirely new properties. The specific handicap that limits ceramic use in 3D printing today is the fact that the materials—in powder or paste form—must be assembled layer by layer, and then be glazed and fired for strength. By manipulating the atomic characteristics of these compounds, Jayan aims to eliminate the need for firing entirely. If she succeeds in doing so, industrial-scale production of ceramic components would be possible at a fraction of the current cost and energy usage.

Ceramics: The Building Blocks of the Future?

Ceramic materials boast a number of properties that make them highly desirable for industrial use. In addition to being both lightweight and strong, ceramics are common and inexpensive. The costs have historically crept in only once the energy required to fire them properly enters the process. Moreover, most finished ceramic products are incredibly heat resistant. Old-school ceramics, like bricks or tiles, have long been known for their tolerance to heat. Newer, more highly engineered ceramics are even more heat resistant, with some able to withstand temperatures of up to 2,000°C. This combination of desirable characteristics makes ceramics a candidate for use in component production in nearly every industry—if only the energy costs associated with the firing process can be reduced. Jayan’s outside-the-box solution of literally scrambling the atomic structures of ceramics with electromagnetic waves could be just the ticket.

For a summary of the past year’s breakthroughs and innovations in 3D printing materials, ceramic and otherwise, check out this article.