Spark Plasma Sintering (SPS) is a promising rapid consolidation technique that allows a better understanding and manipulating of sintering kinetics and therefore makes it possible to obtain Si3N4-based ceramics with tailored microstructures, consisting of grains with either equiaxed or elongated morphology.
The presence of an extra liquid phase is necessary for forming tough interlocking microstructures in Yb/Y-stabilised α-sialon by HP. The liquid is introduced by a new method, namely by increasing the O/N ratio in the general formula RExSi12-(3x+n)Al3x+nOnN16-n while keeping the cation ratios of RE, Si and Al constant.
Monophasic α-sialon ceramics with tailored microstructures, consisting of either fine equiaxed or elongated grains, have been obtained by using SPS, whether or not such an extra liquid phase is involved. The three processes, namely densification, phase transformation and grain growth, which usually occur simultaneously during conventional HP consolidation of Si3N4-based ceramics, have been precisely followed and separately investigated in the SPS process.
The enhanced densification is attributed to the non-equilibrium nature of the liquid phase formed during heating. The dominating mechanism during densification is the enhanced grain boundary sliding accompanied by diffusion- and/or reaction-controlled processes. The rapid grain growth is ascribed to a dynamic ripening mechanism based on the formation of a liquid phase that is grossly out of equilibrium, which in turn generates an extra chemical driving force for mass transfer. Monophasic α-sialon ceramics with interlocking microstructures exhibit improved damage tolerance. Y/Yb- stabilised monophasic α-sialon ceramics containing approximately 3 vol% liquid with refined interlocking microstructures have excellent thermal-shock resistance, comparable to the best β-sialon ceramics with 20 vol% additional liquid phase prepared by HP.
The obtained sialon ceramics with fine-grained microstructure show formidably improved superplasticity in the presence of an electric field. The compressive strain rate reaches the order of 10-2 s-1 at temperatures above 1500oC, that is, two orders of magnitude higher than that has been realised so far by any other conventional approaches. The high deformation rate recorded in this work opens up possibilities for making ceramic components with complex shapes through super-plastic forming.