Ceramic-matrix composite

The class of materials known as ceramic-matrix composites, or CMCs, shows considerable promise for providing fracture-toughness values similar to those for metals such as cast iron. Two kinds of damage-tolerant ceramic-ceramic composites have been developed. One incorporates a continuous reinforcing phase, such as a fiber; the other, a discontinuous reinforcement, such as whiskers. The major difference between the two is in their failure behavior. Continuous-fiber-reinforced materials do not fail catastrophically. After matrix failure, the fiber can still support a load. A fibrous failure is similar to that which occurs in wood.

Incorporating whiskers into a ceramic matrix improves resistance to crack growth, making the composite less sensitive to flaws. These materials are commonly described as being flaw tolerant. However, once a crack begins to propagate, failure is catastrophic.

Of particular importance to the technology of toughened ceramics has been the development of high-temperature SiC reinforcements.

SiC Filaments

SiC filaments are prepared by chemical vapor disposition. A thick layer of SiC is deposited on a thin fiber substrate of tungsten or carbon. Diameter of the final product is about 140 |im.

Although developed initially to reinforce aluminum and titanium matrices, SiC filaments have since been used as reinforcement in Si3N4.

SiC Whiskers

SiC whiskers consist of a fine (0.5-5 |im-diam-eter) single-crystal structure in lengths to 100 |im. The material is strong (to 15.9 GPa) and is stable at temperatures to 1800°C. Whiskers can be produced by heating SiO2 and carbon sources with a metal catalyst in the proper environments.

Although these materials are relatively new, at least one successful commercial product is already being marketed. An SiC-whisker-reinforced Al2O3 cutting-tool material is being used to machine nickel-based superalloys. In addition, considerable interest has been generated in reinforcing other matrices such as mullite, SiC, and Si3N4 for possible applications in automotive and aerospace industries.

Dimox Process

CMCs are steadily moving from the laboratory to initial commercial applications. For example, engineers are currently evaluating these materials for use in the hot gas zones of gas turbine engines, because ceramics are known for their strength and favorable creep behavior at high temperatures. Advanced ceramics, for example, can potentially be used at temperatures 204 to 482°C above the maximum operating temperature for superalloys.

Until recently, however, there has been more evaluation than implementation of advanced ceramics for various reasons. Monolithic or single-component ceramics, for example, lack the required damage tolerance and toughness. Engine designers are put off by the potential of ceramic material for catastrophic, brittle failures. Although many CMCs have greater toughness, they are also difficult to process by traditional methods, and may not have the needed long-term high-temperature resistance.

A relatively new method for producing CMCs developed by Lanxide Corp. promises to overcome the limitations of other ceramic technologies. Called the DIMOX directed metal oxidation process, it is based on the reaction of a molten metal with an oxidant, usually a gas, to form the ceramic matrix. Unlike the sintering process, in which ceramic powders and fillers are consolidated under heat, directed metal oxidation grows the ceramic matrix material around the reinforcements.

Examples of ceramic matrices that can be produced by the DIMOX directed metal oxidation process include Al2O3, A12Ti5, AlN, TiN, ZrN, TiC, and ZrC. Filler materials can be anything chemically compatible with the ceramic, parent metal, and growth atmosphere.

The first step in the process involves making a shaped preform of the filler material. Preforms consisting of particles are fabricated with traditional ceramic-forming techniques, while fiber preforms are made by weaving, braiding, or laying up woven cloth. Next, the preform is put in contact with the parent metal alloy. A gas-permeable growth barrier is applied to the surfaces of this assembly to limit its shape and size.

The assembly, supported in a suitable refractory container, is then heated in a furnace. For aluminum systems, temperatures typically range from 899 to 1149°C. The parent metal reacts with the surrounding gas atmosphere to grow the ceramic reaction product through and around the filler to form a CMC.

Capillary action within the growing ceramic matrix continues to supply molten alloy to the growth front. There, the reaction continues until the growing matrix reaches the barrier. At this point, growth stops, and the part is cooled to ambient temperature. To recover the part, the growth barrier and any residual parent metal are removed. However, some of the parent metal (5 to 15% by volume) remains within the final composite in micron-sized interconnected channels.

Traditional ceramic processes use sintering or hot pressing to make a solid CMC out of ceramic powders and filler. Part size and shapes are limited by equipment size and the shrinkage that occurs during densification of the powders can make sintering unfeasible. Larger parts pose the biggest shrinkage problem. Advantages of the directed metal oxidation process include no shrinkage because matrix formation occurs by a growth process. As a result, tolerance control and large part fabrication can be easier with directed metal oxidation.

In addition, the growth process forms a matrix whose grain boundaries are free of impurities or sintering aids. Traditional methods often incorporate these additives, which reduce high-temperature properties. And cost comparisons show the newer process is a promising replacement for traditional methods.

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