The University Record, May 22, 2000

U-M invention key to Pascua Yaqui’s ceramic manufacturing business

By Suzanne Tainter
Division of Research Development and Administration

A U-M invention is a key part of a ceramic components manufacturing business newly established by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona. A process for creating fibrous monolithic ceramics, patented by a U-M engineering team, provides the raw material for ceramic components used in jet engines, CAT scanners, oil-drilling rigs and other technologies.

Fibrous monolithic ceramics have the desirable feature of cracking without breaking all the way through the way more brittle ceramics do, explained John W. Halloran, professor of materials science and engineering. This prevents catastrophic failures of parts made from the ceramics. Halloran heads a laboratory that was awarded U.S. patent 5,645,781 in 1997 for a method of manufacturing fibrous monolithic ceramics more easily than previous methods. The other inventors are former U-M graduate students Dragan Popovic, Gregory E. Hilmas, G. Allen Brady and Gregory Zywicki, with undergraduate students Scott Somers and Andrew Barda.

Fibrous ceramics are created from combinations of polymers and ceramic powders. The U-M-patented process uses coextrusion to create the fibrous ceramics, extruding at the same time a core fiber and a coating of a different ceramic composition. The extruded fibers are then formed into blocks or sheets with woven, felted or other textures depending on the characteristics desired. This resulting ceramic “green” material is then further processed through molding, intense pressure or machining to create the components used in various technologies.

The Pascua Yaqui Tribe will manufacture ceramic components as part of a joint venture with Advanced Ceramics Research, Inc. (ACR, Inc.) of Tucson, the licensee of the U-M patent for creating the fibrous ceramics. The joint venture, called Advanced Ceramics Manufacturing L.L.C., is majority owned by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and managed by ACR Inc.

For now, Advanced Ceramics Manufacturing L.L.C. is housed in the ACR Inc. research and production facility in Tucson, but will move to a 15,000-square-foot facility being built on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation southwest of Tucson. That state-of-the-art plant will be equipped with technology that uses intense heat and pressure to form parts from the ceramics as well as laser machining equipment. The $3.5 million facility is expected to employ 300 people within five years.

This is the first example of a technology-based facility on Native American tribal lands funded by tribal gaming revenues. “This visionary step will ensure the tribe a prosperous economic future by entering into a high-technology sector,” says Benito Valencia, chairman of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

The venture will provide volume production of high-value added composite ceramic components used in defense, energy, medical and space-related applications, according to Anthony Mulligan, CEO of ACR Inc.

Currently, Advanced Ceramics Manufacturing L.L.C. is developing components for the GE F110 engine used in the Navy F-14 Tomcat, missile components for Raytheon missiles, X-ray targets for Varian Corp. CAT-scanners, and wear components for oil-drilling and mining equipment.