The crystallinity of ceramic materials ranges from highly oriented to semi-crystalline, vitrified, and often completely amorphous (e.g., glasses). Most often, fired ceramics are either vitrified or semi-vitrified as is the case with earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. Varying crystallinity and electron composition in the ionic and covalent bonds cause most ceramic materials to be good thermal and electrical insulators (extensively researched in ceramic engineering). With such a large range of possible options for the composition/structure of a ceramic (e.g. nearly all of the elements, nearly all types of bonding, and all levels of crystallinity), the breadth of the subject is vast, and identifiable attributes (e.g. hardness, toughness, electrical conductivity, etc.) are difficult to specify for the group as a whole. General properties such as high melting temperature, high hardness, poor conductivity, high moduli of elasticity, chemical resistance and low ductility are the norm, with known exceptions to each of these rules (e.g. piezoelectric ceramics, glass transition temperature, superconductive ceramics, etc.). Many composites, such as fiberglass and carbon fiber, while containing ceramic materials, are not considered to be part of the ceramic family.
Noncrystalline ceramics, being glass, 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 into a mold. If later heat treatments cause this glass to become partly crystalline, the resulting material is known as a glass-ceramic, widely used as cook-tops and also as a glass composite material for nuclear waste disposal.
An early people that spread across much of Europe is named after its use of pottery, the Corded Ware culture. These early Indo-European peoples decorated their pottery by wrapping it with rope while still wet. When the ceramics were fired, the rope burned off but left a decorative pattern of complex grooves in the surface.
The technical approach to ceramic analysis involves a finer examination of the composition of ceramic artifacts and sherds to determine the source of the material and through this the possible manufacturing site. Key criteria are the composition of the clay and the temper used in the manufacture of the article under study: temper is a material added to the clay during the initial production stage, and it is used to aid the subsequent drying process. Types of temper include shell pieces, granite fragments and ground sherd pieces called 'grog'. Temper is usually identified by microscopic examination of the temper material. Clay identification is determined by a process of refiring the ceramic, and assigning a color to it using Munsell Soil Color notation. By estimating both the clay and temper compositions, and locating a region where both are known to occur, an assignment of the material source can be made. From the source assignment of the artifact further investigations can be made into the site of manufacture.
Ceramic materials are usually ionic or covalent bonded materials, and can be crystalline or amorphous. A material held together by either type of bond will tend to fracture before any plastic deformation takes place, which results in poor toughness in these materials. Additionally, because these materials tend to be porous, the pores and other microscopic imperfections act as stress concentrators, decreasing the toughness further, and reducing the tensile strength. These combine to give catastrophic failures, as opposed to the more ductile failure modes of metals.
During ice-templating a few variables can be controlled to influence the pore size and morphology of the microstructure. These important variables are the initial solids loading of the colloid, the cooling rate, the sintering temperature and duration, and the use of certain additives which can influence the micro-structural morphology during the process. A good understanding of these parameters is essential to understanding the relationships between processing, microstructure, and mechanical properties of anisotropically porous materials.
The piezoelectric effect is generally stronger in materials that also exhibit pyroelectricity, and all pyroelectric materials are also piezoelectric. These materials can be used to inter-convert between thermal, mechanical, or electrical energy; for instance, after synthesis in a furnace, a pyroelectric crystal allowed to cool under no applied stress generally builds up a static charge of thousands of volts. Such materials are used in motion sensors, where the tiny rise in temperature from a warm body entering the room is enough to produce a measurable voltage in the crystal.
In the 1960s, scientists at General Electric (GE) discovered that under the right manufacturing conditions, some ceramics, especially aluminium oxide (alumina), could be made translucent. These translucent materials were transparent enough to be used for containing the electrical plasma generated in high-pressure sodium street lamps. During the past two decades, additional types of transparent ceramics have been developed for applications such as nose cones for heat-seeking missiles, windows for fighter aircraft, and scintillation counters for computed tomography scanners.