Ask the average person about the applications of ceramics and you’ll probably get a list like this: kitchenware, decorative objects, bricks, tiles and pipes. This is a good summation of the first 20,000 years of ceramic technology, but in recent decades the list has lengthened dramatically to include specialised ceramic materials with advanced applications ranging from biomedicine to armour, electronics to jet engines.
The latest addition to the list is ceramic smartphone cases. Apple looks likely to wrap its next generation of 5G smartphones in thin but outstandingly tough zirconia ceramics instead of aluminium, and most competitors will follow suit. China’s Xiaomi and Oppo, and Korea’s Samsung and LG are already selling smartphones using ceramic cases. Add in tablets, PCs, watches and other devices that would benefit from zirconia ceramic cases and it’s clear that demand for zirconia could skyrocket. However, zirconia supply chains are not ready to meet high demand.
What’s so great about zirconia ceramic smartphone cases?
They enable stronger signals, faster data download and wireless charging. They also look great in a multitude of surface textures and colours, and can be ultra-thin yet scratch-resistant because zirconia scores 8.5 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness (only diamond scores a perfect 10). Should your smartphone case still somehow sustain an injury, it could even self-heal. Production costs should be similar to existing materials when mass-produced.
The magical substance delivering these highly desirable attributes is Yttria-stabilised zirconia (YSZ), a ceramic in which the crystal structure of zirconium dioxide (a.k.a zirconia) is stabilised at room temperature and above by adding yttrium oxide. It was called ‘ceramic steel’ when it was invented by CSIRO in Australia in the 1970s, and it’s even better today.
The exceptional mechanical properties of YSZ permit ultra-thinness to minimise weight, while excellent thermal shock resistance protects your device against sudden changes in temperature. YSZ is transparent to radio waves, which is essential for fast data download at the high frequencies used for 4G and 5G networks. Current materials are hitting their speed limits but YSZ is ready for 5G, when download speeds will increase by 10 times. Being non-conductive, YSZ also permits wireless inductive charging, freeing us from annoying cables.
What happens when everyone wants a YSZ smartphone case?
In 2017, smartphone sales were 1.54 billion. Assuming just 37g of zirconia per case, for all smartphones to move to YSZ cases would require at least 54,000 tonnes of zirconia (plus 3,000 tonnes of yttrium oxide) annually. To meet this demand, global zirconium chemicals supply would need to increase by 75%
Australia remains the leading source of raw zircon worldwide, but China captures the real value from our resources by converting zircon to zirconia (and other zirconium chemicals) and using these materials to manufacture advanced products, which Australians purchase at retail prices – not smart!
Anticipating a tsunami-like surge in zirconia demand, Western and Chinese producers are already investing in new production facilities. But how will increased demand for zirconia be met when Chinese supply of zirconium materials is stalling?
Fortunately, Alkane Resources’ Dubbo Project offers an alternative, sustainable source of supply. Not just another zircon extraction facility, the Dubbo Project will value-add in Chinese fashion and produce over 16,000 tonnes of zirconia and over 1,000 tonnes of yttrium oxide annually, both of which will be needed for YSZ smartphone cases.
The oldest ceramics in the world were found in China. The newest ceramics could come out of Australia, but to progress the Dubbo Project to construction, Alkane Resources seeks a blend of financing from export credit agencies, strategic partners and equity and debt markets. Information for investors is available here