Ceramic bearings are opening new avenues of research

The global ceramic bearings market set to grow at a CAGR of around eleven per cent between 2017 and 2023, with lab equipment representing a key application for this growth. Chris Johnson, managing director of ceramic bearing specialist SMB Bearings, examines the link between ceramic bearings sales and the output of successful scientific research.

Ceramic bearings are in high demand and SMB bearings has experienced a significant increase in the number of enquiries about this bearing type. Scientific and engineering end users are showing the most interest in using these bearings for lab equipment.But, why ceramic?

Lab equipment is a crucial element in experimental control. Using the wrong components in such equipment can contaminate study conditions or cause an experiment to cease all together. Many scientific research projects operate in highly corrosive or extreme environments, which rely on equipment that can withstand such conditions.

Full ceramic bearings offer the corrosion resistance and high-temperature endurance that steel bearings cannot match. However, this bearing type isn’t to be confused with hybrid bearings that still contain a proportion of steel. Made from entirely silicon nitride or zirconia, sometimes with PEEK or PTFE retainers, full ceramic bearings can endure highly corrosive environments at extreme temperatures.

Ceramic bearing applications are not required to endure the high speed and heavy shock loads already covered by the ‘work horse’ steel bearings. Full ceramic bearings are better suited to specialist requirements. Interestingly, the load rating of a ceramic bearing is 20 to 35 per cent of a steel equivalent, as the material is more brittle. Thankfully, this isn’t an issue for many laboratory applications.

Scientific applications often have bespoke needs that only ceramic bearings can meet. For example, a researcher may be submerging equipment into strong acid to test the effects of long-term acid exposure on a specimen. If the equipment fails due to bearing corrosion, months of research could be rendered invalid.

Here’s three of many examples of scientific research that are improving due to the availability of high-quality ceramic bearings.

Cryogenic research

As well as corrosive resistance, ceramic bearings also cope well with very high and low temperatures. One area of scientific research that is boosting demand for ceramic bearings is cryogenics, the study of materials at extremely low temperatures.

For bearings, extreme low temperatures have detrimental effects on the viscosity of the lubrication, resulting in extreme stiffness and high rotational torque. Ceramic bearings are often used without lubrication in cryogenic pumps, enabling researchers to evade the issues of viscosity. Additionally, the material produces very little friction, keeping rotational torque to a minimum.

Magnetic resonance imaging

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is an imaging technique. Typically associated with hospital MRI scanners, this technology is also used in scientific research by using a strong magnetic field to generate two and three-dimensional images of any living subject.

Any equipment used in these scanners must be non-magnetic, which instantly renders steel bearings unsuitable. Luckily, ceramic bearings are non-magnetic, so can be used inside the MRI scanner, and in any supporting equipment such as lighting, mounting, cameras and ventilators.

Cleanroom studies

A cleanroom is a type of laboratory which is kept completely dust free, which lets scientists build and measure very small devices in a room free of contamination. Cleanrooms in universities are spawning new findings into materials at the smallest of scales — including the nanoscale.

While everyone entering a cleanroom must wear protective clothing, ceramic bearings offer similar levels of protection to lab equipment. Standard steel bearings contain lubrication that can disperse into the external environment, debilitating the ongoing efforts to keep the cleanroom clean. This is often referred to as outgassing. Full ceramic bearings, however, can run without lubrication.

Ceramic is non-porous making it practically frictionless. Unlike stainless steel bearings, full ceramic bearings do not suffer heat build-up within the bearing and therefore do not need lubrication to help dissipate the heat. Running the bearings dry completely eradicates concerns over outgassing.

The global ceramic bearing market size represents something much bigger than increased bearing sales, but the ability to bolster the output of new scientific devices, without the fear of bearing corrosion or failure.