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A ceramic that can cut steel

MATERIALS

DRIVE INTO Sheffield and the road signs scream 'Welcome to the Steel City', reminding you of its industrial heritage.

Football matches between the two main teams, Wednesday and United, are known as Steel City Derbies and the ice hockey side is called the Sheffield Steelers.

It is ironic then that the University of Sheffield is playing a part in developing a material that could prove a major alternative to steel.

Scientists at the university, alongside Crewe-based company Dynamic Ceramic, are part of a team working on a toughened ceramic for use in industrial cutting.

The ceramic material, zirconia, has steel-like strength and hardness. But its use has been limited because of its tendency to lose strength and become brittle when exposed to high temperatures and water - a process known as hydrothermal degradation.

But scientists have discovered that the addition of minute quantities of materials such as alumina can inhibit the hydrothermal degradation process without compromising the ceramic's durability and toughness.

Adding trace quantities of alumina ensures any degradation of the zirconia surface is prevented from progressing into the material.

Professor Mark Rainforth, research leader at the Department of Engineering Materials, believes its increased strength could improve productivity for manufacturers such as rebar fabricators and steel floor producers.

He said: 'Increased industrial productivity could result from overcoming zirconia's Achilles' heel.'