Ceramic Materials: All The Types You Need To Know

Even though you might not realize it, you can find ceramic materials almost anywhere you go.

It is pretty amazing to realize that the techniques and materials that our ancestors discovered are still used to this very day in one way or another.

But technology hasn’t stood still! Although we still make and use a lot of traditional ceramics, there is also an additional category of advanced ceramics used in the industry.

Let’s go over the different types of ceramic materials and what they are used for.

What is ceramic?

Let’s start by defining what is and what is not a ceramic.

Ceramic materials are made from inorganic non-metallic minerals by firing at high temperatures.

What is important is that the properties of the ceramic materials change during the firing process. For example, turning soft malleable clay into a hard ceramic cup.

Most ceramic materials are hard, brittle, and resistant to heat and corrosion. However, the properties can change depending on the starting materials used.

Traditional ceramics are normally used to produce plates, cups, vases, etc. While the recently developed advanced ceramics are used in spaceships, semiconductors, automotives, etc.

We’ll talk more about the differences between traditional and advanced ceramics later on.

What is traditional ceramics?

Traditional ceramics normally refer to ceramic pottery such as plates, cups, bowls, and vases. These can be made from different types of clay such as earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain.

Traditionally this type of ceramic is made by hand using handbuilding techniques, slab pottery, or coils. However, nowadays most hobby potters like to use a pottery wheel to speed up the process.

After shaping the clay it needs to be fired at high temperatures to turn it into a ceramic piece. Depending on the type of clay, the firing temperatures and properties of the resulting ceramic can differ.

So let’s go over the 3 most common types of clay used in traditional ceramics.

Types of traditional ceramic pottery

1. Earthenware ceramics

Earthenware is the oldest material used to make ceramic pottery. It is normally used to make tableware and decorative pieces.

To mature earthenware, it needs to be fired between 1800 ~ 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. The resulting ceramic becomes slightly porous and coarse when solid.

Earthenware can’t be used for tableware directly because food residue and bacteria easily get stuck and thrive in the small pores.

To remedy the porosity, the earthenware pieces are glazed and fired a second time. This results in a thin layer of glass over the earthenware, which makes it suitable as tableware.

Earthenware is a cheap and easy material to work with, which is why it’s still popular nowadays.

2. Stoneware ceramics

Stoneware is another type of clay that needs to be heated to roughly 2200 degrees Fahrenheit to mature. At these high temperatures, the clay undergoes a process called vitrification. This means that the clay turns into glass.

As a result stoneware ceramics aren’t porous and can be safely used for foodstuffs or cooking. In general, stoneware is also more sturdy and chip-resistant than earthenware.

Not all stoneware clays need to be fired at these high temperatures. There are also “mid-range” stoneware clays that can be fired at much lower temperatures.

However, since these stoneware pieces don’t get completely vitrified, you’ll have to apply a glaze before using it for food.

3. Porcelain ceramics

Porcelain ceramics probably sounds the most familiar. It’s well-known for its typical white color and is very hard.

Of all the types of ceramic clays used in pottery, porcelain clay needs to be heated at the highest temperatures to fully mature. Normally temperatures above 2200 degrees Fahrenheit are used.

The earliest forms of porcelain were found in China, so porcelain is also often referred to as “fine china”. Not to be confused with “bone china”, which is made by mixing porcelain clay with the ash from animal bones. Bone china is even stronger than regular porcelain, but not used as often anymore.

More examples of ceramic materials

Cups, plates, vases, and similar items are the most common handmade ceramics made by potters and ceramic artists nowadays.

However, ceramics can be used for many additional applications. You are probably familiar with most of these. But maybe you didn’t know that they were also considered to be ceramics.

Let’s go over a few of them!

1. Bricks

You probably didn’t realize it, but bricks are also considered to be ceramics. They are made from clay, and after heating they are permanently solid.

Bricks are some of the most common building materials houses, walls, fireplaces, etc.

Most bricks are made from earthenware clay, so they don’t need to be fired at super high temperatures.

2. Tiles

Ceramic and porcelain tiles are some of the most popular types of tiles used in kitchens and bathrooms. They are made from a combination of silica, minerals, and clay that is shaped and fired in a kiln.

However, the ceramic clay is a little coarser than the porcelain clay used. And the porcelain tiles are fired at higher temperatures.

As a result, the porcelain tiles are denser, more sturdy, and more resistant to water infiltration. But they are also considerably more expensive than the ceramic tiles.

3. Glass

Everyone is familiar with glass. It’s the stuff your tea glass and windows are made from. But not everything that looks like glass, is the real deal.

There is something called “glass-ceramic” or more commonly referred to as ceramic glass. These materials are somewhat a hybrid between glass and ceramic materials.

As a result, ceramic glass is normally much stronger and can resist large temperature changes. Most of those shiny cooktops are indeed made from ceramic glass, rather than regular glass. You can also find ceramic glass in ovens, barbeques, space telescopes, and many more applications.

What is an advanced ceramic?

Advanced ceramics are a special type of ceramics that often possess higher strength, hardness, durability, and/or toughness than traditional ceramics.

However, to make advanced ceramics the purity of the starting materials is very important. Many chemical processes are needed to ensure this purity. As a result, advanced ceramics are way more expensive and only used when cheaper alternatives fail.

Advanced ceramics are most commonly used in electrical, electronic, optical, and magnetic applications.

In electronic and electrical industries these advanced ceramic materials can be used to fabricate ceramic capacitors, vibrators, temperature sensors, sonar, microphones, oscillators, etc. Magnetic ceramics can also be used to made antennas and inductors.

As a consumer, you might unconsciously have some across advanced bioceramics, which as used as dental implants, eyeglasses, and hip/knee replacements.

As you can see, advanced ceramics can be useful in many situations where traditional ceramics can’t be used.

Summary

Ceramic materials can be found everywhere in your daily life. Ceramic materials can be divided into traditional ceramics and advanced ceramics.

Traditional ceramic materials are made from clay that are shaped and fired in a kiln. This firing process permanently changes the properties of the material. That’s what makes it a ceramic. Common examples of traditional ceramic materials are mugs, plates, vases, etc.

Advanced ceramic materials often possess higher strength, hardness, durability, and/or toughness than traditional ceramics. But they are also considerably more expensive to make.

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