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When you hear ‘ceramics,’ usually an image of pottery or space shuttle tiles appear. What many people don’t realize is that ceramics and ceramic engineering play an important role almost everywhere you look—and sometimes where you can’t. Besides the everyday objects, ceramics are helping computers and other electronic devices operate, improving people’s health in various ways, providing global telecommunications, and protecting soldiers during combat.

What are ceramic materials?

In the most simple of terms, ceramics are inorganic, nonmetallic materials. They are typically crystalline in nature (have an ordered structure) and are compounds formed between metallic and nonmetallic elements such as aluminum and oxygen (alumina, Al2O3), calcium and oxygen (CaO), and silicon and nitrogen (silicon nitride, Si3N4). In broader terms, ceramics also include glass (which has a non-crystalline or amorphous random structure), enamel (a type of glassy coating), glass-ceramics (a glass containing ceramic crystals), and inorganic cement-type materials (cement, plaster, and lime). However, as ceramic technology has developed over time, the definition has expanded to include a much wider range of other compositions used in a variety of applications.

The word “ceramic” is traced back to the Greek term keramos, meaning potter’s clay or pottery. Keramos in turn is related to an older Sanskrit root meaning “to burn.” Ceramus or Keramos was also an ancient city on the north coast of the Aegean Sea in what is currently Turkey.

The word Keramos lives on as the national professional ceramic engineering fraternity.