The word ceramic is derived from the Greek word (the name of a suburb of Athens), and in its strictest sense refers to clay in all its forms. However, modern usage of the term broadens the meaning to include all inorganic non-metallic materials. Up until the 1950s or so, the most important of these were the traditional clays, made into pottery, bricks, tiles and the like, along with cements and glass. The traditional crafts are described in the article on pottery. A composite material of ceramic and metal is known as cermet.

The Venus of Dolni Vestonice is the oldest known ceramic in the world. Historically, ceramic products have been hard, porous and brittle. The study of ceramics consists to a large extent of methods to mitigate these problems, and accentuate the strengths of the materials, as well as to offer up unusual uses for these materials.

Electrical properties

There are a number of ceramics that are semiconductors. Most of these are transition metal oxides that are II-VI semiconductors, such as zinc oxide.

Whilst there is talk of making blue LEDs from zinc oxide, ceramicists are most interested in the electrical properties that show grain boundary effects.

One of the most widely used of these is the varistor. These are devices that exhibit the unusual property of negative resistance. Once the voltage across the device reaches a certain threshold, there is a breakdown of the electrical structure in the vicinity of the grain boundaries, which results in its electrical resistance dropping from several megaohms down to a few hundred ohms. The major advantage of these is that they can dissipate a lot of energy, and they self reset — after the voltage across the device drops below the threshold, its resistance returns to being high.

This makes them ideal for surge-protection applications. As there is control over the threshold voltage and energy tolerance, they find use in all sorts of applications. The best demonstration of their ability can be found in electrical substations, where they are employed to protect the infrastructure from lightning strikes. They have rapid response, are low maintenance, and do not appreciably degrade from use, making them virtually ideal devices for this application.

Semiconducting ceramics are also employed as gas sensors. When various gases are passed over a polycrystalline ceramic, its electrical resistance changes. With tuning to the possible gas mixtures, very inexpensive devices can be produced.

Processing of Ceramic Materials
Non-crystalline ceramics, being glasses, tend to be formed from melts. The glass is shaped when either fully molten, by casting, or when in a state of toffee-like viscosity, by methods such as blowing to a mould. If later heat-treatments cause this class to become partly crystalline, the resulting material is known as a glass-ceramic.

Crystalline ceramic materials are not amenable to a great range of processing. Methods for dealing with them tend to fall into one of two categories - either make the ceramic in the desired shape, by reaction in situ, or by forming powders into the desired shape, and then sintering to form a solid body. A few methods use a hybrid between the two approaches.

In situ manufacturing
The most common use of this method is in the production of cement and concrete. Here, the dehydrated powders are mixed with water. This starts hydration reactions, which result in long, interlocking crystals forming around the aggregates. Over time, these result in a solid ceramic.

The biggest problem with this method is that most reactions are so fast that good mixing is not possible, which tends to prevent large-scale construction. However, small-scale systems can be made by deposition techniques, where the various materials are introduced above a substrate, and react and form the ceramic on the substrate. This borrows techniques from the semiconductor industry, such as chemical vapour deposition, and is very useful for coatings.

These tend to produce very dense ceramics, but do so slowly.

Other applications of ceramics
A couple of decades ago, Toyota researched production of an adiabatic ceramic engine which can run at a temperature of over 6000 °F (3300 °C). Ceramic engines do not require a cooling system and hence allow a major weight reduction and therefore greater fuel efficiency. Fuel efficiency of the engine is also higher at high temperature. In a conventional metallic engine, much of the energy released from the fuel must be dissipated as waste heat in order to prevent a meltdown of the metallic parts.

Despite all of these desirable properties, such engines are not in production because the manufacturing of ceramic parts in the requisite precision and durability is difficult. Imperfection in the ceramic leads to cracks, which can lead to potentially dangerous equipment failure. Such engines are possible in laboratory settings, but mass-production is infeasible with current technology.

Work is being done in developing ceramic parts for gas turbine engines. Currently, even blades made of advanced metal alloys used in the engines' hot section require cooling and careful limiting of operating temperatures. Turbine engines made with ceramics could operate more efficiently, giving aircraft greater range and payload for a set amount of fuel.

Since the late 1990s highly specialized ceramics, usually based on boron carbide, formed into plates and lined with Spectra, have been used in ballistic armored vests to repel large-caliber rifle fire. Such plates are known commonly as small-arms protective inserts (SAPI). Very similar technology is used for armoring of cockpits of some military airplanes, because of the low weight of the material.