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Imerys Advanced Ceramics: New Pilot Plant for Synthetic Minerals

The Imerys Technology Center in Lyon/FR, which specialises, amongst other things, in high-temperature materials, has benefited since spring 2022 from an investment of more than EUR 1 million for a pilot plant to carry out hydrothermal synthesis in a continuous process. It is extending Imerys’ R&D activities in Advanced Ceramics, which are located in Villach/AT and Tianjin/CN. This technology was developed thanks to scientific and technical partnerships with the universities of Bordeaux/FR and Toulouse/FR and has generated 20 patents. It will enable Imerys to create powders with high-tech properties, complementing its existing product offering based on natural minerals. During a visit, we were able to learn more details from Christophe Cleeren (CC), Global Advanced Ceramics and Specialities Director, and Chris Parr (CP), Vice-President Science and Technology.

cfi: For decades now, Imerys has been very famous for being a globally leading mineral supplier. Advanced Ceramics activities were launched in recent years. What is the strategy behind the formation of this new business? 

CC: The official launch was in 2019, but we had already engaged in lots of related activities before then: for alumina in Zhengzhou/ CN, Villach/AT, at three sites in Germany and for silica and zirconia in USA, but also in Germany and China. We can supply tailored mineral solutions for technical ceramics from Germany, France, Switzerland, the United States, Great Britain and Australia. This shows, that we have a global network that helps us to better understand regional needs and opportunities. Furthermore, we differentiate ourselves as a supplier of engineered materials for advanced ceramics, ready-to-press powders and bodies as well as kiln furniture for ceramic producers, as we are the only company to provide such a full package. 

cfi: What was the motivation to launch this complex project for synthetic minerals? 

CC: Our Advanced Ceramics products are powders made with a series of specialised manufacturing processes to achieve specific electrical and thermal, insulation, permeable, magnetic, mechanical or even optical properties for an equally specific set of applications. These range from electrical fittings and thermal appliances to parts for the automotive, aerospace and medical industries. Advanced Ceramics are at the forefront of many innovations and hightech applications, most recently for electric vehicles. For even more demanding applications we aim to offer synthetic materials in a nano and submicron range that can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the application. They are very pure, we can modify their crystal structure and help therefore to introduce new Advanced Ceramic products into even more sophisticated technical solutions based on alumina, zirconia, wollastonite or talc. This will enable us to complement our existing product offering. 

cfi: Imerys take a very user-oriented approach to the markets. Which are the most important segments of applications you are targeting? 

CC: We are covering markets such as industry, mobility, energy, electronics with detailed expertise in application such as performance tools, sensors and energy converters, membranes and foam filters to thermal and electrical insulation and thermal spray coatings. Our bespoke offering also includes the formulation services from our dedicated laboratories, state-of-the-art technical support, and on-site production support. 

cfi: Please explain the principle of the process. 

CP: We have aimed at recreating minerals through hydrothermal technology, based on the combined action of pressure and temperature in a closed system. In nature, hydrothermal chimneys, magmatic activity superheats sea water to produce particles that are geometrically predictable as they pass through hydrothermal ridges. Through geo-mimicking, we have applied this supercritical water technology of hydrothermal chimneys to a synthetic process, to ensure better control over size, morphology, composition, purity and structure of a wide range of materials. This pilot plant uses super-critical water in a novel continuous process at temperatures from 100–600 ÆC and pressures between 150–300 bar to engineer nano scale particles that can be customised. Thanks to this technology, we are now able to reproduce the multi-million year effect of nature on rocks and elements, within seconds. The synthetic geomimetic minerals pilot is a process using an aqueous phase solvent which has intrinsically beneficial characteristics and is more sustainable when compared with other solutions. These minerals with variable characteristics demonstrate higher levels of performance and can be used in high technology and niche applications comparable to those of their naturally occurring counterparts. The pilot plant has a capacity up to 120 kg/h and is, as far as we know, is one of the largest continuous processes of it’s type in the world. There are plenty of lab-scale systems in the laboratories of material scientists, but we want to take the knowledge from fundamental science to the market. 

cfi: Which new market segments can be approached as soon as a product line based on this kind of synthetic materials is available? Can you already give us some examples? 

CP: Some examples of potential applications would be to increase scratch and wear resistance for smartphone screens or better energy storage for wind turbines. Other high value applications are technical parts for turbines or aerospace engines, and high purity minerals of a specific size for the biomedical and cosmetics sectors. 

cfi: How can you already cooperate with potential customers? 

CC: In terms of industrial variants, this pilot also offers the possibility of producing other prototypes and developing high-end applications jointly with certain Imerys customers. We have already started those projects. Potential customers who take a closer look understand that this new generation of powders is opening up access to new and fast-growing markets for them. 

cfi: What can the new technology bring with regard to aspects geared to more sustainable production? 

CP: This synthesis process is also of great environmental interest and is part of a sustainable approach: all the atoms used are converted, without loss, with water serving as a solvent and as a substitute for chemicals and can be considered as a contribution to the “full atom economy” and subscribe to the sustainable logic of “doing more with less”. Synthetic minerals are paving the way for a wide range of possibilities for many products and applications in everyday life, from plastic chemistry to inert, recyclable and environmentally friendly minerals. We are sure that we will find lots more applications that we are not yet even aware of by intensifying our activities in this field. 

cfi: Thank you for talking to us.

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