NASA Program in Ceramic Research

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Over the period of 1963 to 1989, NASA provided funding for a major program in ceramics research at the UW which involved a large number of faculty and students and which, besides yielding important research results, enhanced the engineering curriculum.footnote 1

The success of the program was due, in large part, to the efforts of James I. Mueller, principal investigator on the grant from 1964 until his death in 1986. Mueller also developed in parallel a more applied effort relating to the space shuttle thermal insulation (see Learning to Take the Heat: Insulation for the Space Shuttle). For that work, he received NASA's Public Service Medal in 1981. Several decades earlier, Mueller had established an x-ray diffraction laboratory which gained considerable recognition.footnote 2 Using x-ray spectroscopy, Mueller succeeded in developing methods that reduced the time for analysis of ceramic materials from days to a few hours. The method allowed the physical structure of ceramic materials to be determined at the atomic level. He conducted studies on silica sands, diatomaceous earth, chromate refractories, olivine, and clay, studies which contributed to the industrial development and technology in Washington State. In recognition of his achievements, Mueller became a Fellow of the American Ceramic Society in 1959; from 1958 to 1960, he was president of Keramos, the National Ceramic Engineering Professional Fraternity.

The primary accomplishment of the NASA-funded ceramic research program at the UW was the development of silicon nitride, Si3N4, as a structural material.footnote 1 In earlier studies, researchers in the program established the basic properties and the excellent electronic properties of carbide materials; but they also demonstrated that with the technology available at that time, carbides were unsuitable for structural applications.

Silicon nitride was found to be very tough, and capable of withstanding high operating temperatures without degrading or losing its strength. From 1975 to 1986, the development of this material was a principal focus of the program, with emphasis on its processing and properties. This basic research led to commercial methods for producing parts made of silicon nitride. Today, for example, silicon nitride is produced for high temperature engine parts by the Kyocera Corporation in Vancouver, Washington.

The program funded the development of an interdisciplinary course entitled "Design with Brittle Materials," which enhanced graduate education over the period of 1979 to 1986. Unlike metals, ceramics are inherently brittle, creating many design challenges. The course helped engineering students understand how to design with these brittle materials that were of increasing importance in space applications, in new high-performance engines, and in other high-technology applications.

In 1986, the focus of the program shifted to ceramic matrix composites. These are composite (combination) materials in which metal or polymeric fibers are embedded in a brittle ceramic matrix in order to improve its mechanical properties. The research demonstrated the feasibility of these novel materials and produced new methods of characterizing their properties.

  1. Information provided by Tom Stoebe, Chairman of the UW Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is gratefully acknowledged.
  2. Centennial: From Mining, Minerals, Metals and Ceramics to Materials Science and Engineering: A Century of Progress at the University of Washington, Dept. of Materials Science & Engineering, University of Washington, April 1994.

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