The Art of Processing Ceramics - Professor Jon Binner

Professor Jon Binner has worked in academia all his professional life, but he doesn’t consider himself a typical academic. That’s because the eminent materials engineer gets more of a buzz from seeing his research turned into real-life applications than he does from doing pure science.

Not that he doesn’t enjoy the latter, he is quick to stress – it’s just that he experiences particular satisfaction through finding a solution to a real-world problem and taking it to market.

Over the course of more than 30 years, Jon, who is Professor of Ceramic Sciences and Engineering, has seen a number of projects commercialised. His current one – a major international research programme for which he has won £4.2M in funding – could be the most world-changing yet. The development of thermal protection systems for the leading edges and other components on vehicles for hypervelocity flight has the potential to revolutionise civilian air travel, maybe two decades from now, by dramatically reducing flight times. Instead of taking nearly 12 hours to fly from London to Tokyo, for example, it would take just 90 minutes.

‘This wouldn’t be for the nervous flier, because you’d see the edges of the plane wings glowing white hot at temperatures of 2,000oC or more,’ explains Jon, who is also Deputy Head of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. ‘By developing ceramic composites that can withstand such high temperatures – up to 3,000oC – a plane would be able to travel at five, six, even seven times the speed of sound. At the moment, aircraft fly at 400 mph, but this would enable them to fly at 4,000 mph.’

The project – funded by the EPSRC but with additional funding from DSTL in the UK, the Anglo-French company MBDA and the US Air Force, and with input from and collaboration with researchers from Italy, the US and many other countries – has a long way to go, but already Jon and research team have made the required materials and have the ability to test them.

‘The intellectual challenge is a major factor in what I do, but one of the things I particularly like about ceramic processing is that you can make completely different things with the same fundamental set of building blocks,’ says Jon, who has been at Birmingham for just over two years. ‘It’s a bit like Lego or Meccano: one day you could take the pieces and turn them into the shape of a penguin and the next day a car or a building.

‘So how do you take the same inherent properties and make something different with them? The materials we are producing for this current project are quite exotic, and we are probably up there with the world leaders in terms of being able to think about how to make thermal protection systems.’

The diverse areas in which Jon has worked include nuclear fuel, high-temperature superconductors, electronic components such as capacitors and varistors and nanostructured materials. Much of his research is associated with the defence industry: as well as thermal protection systems, he is also working to develop superior armour materials that can withstand extreme environments.

One reason for Jon’s success is that he looks at a problem holistically, gathering together a team of researchers that will look at each and every aspect.

‘My team consists of seven or eight researchers, based in the School of Metallurgy and Materials, who are each working on just this one aspect of research. That means I can have different people looking at different parts of the problem simultaneously.’

A major project Jon was previously involved in – developing nanostructured ceramics – was ready for commercialisation within ten years, and he is confident this latest programme will be ready for market in a few years’ time.

‘I would be very surprised if (flying to Japan in 90 minutes) happens in the next 20 years, but there are military applications that could adopt the systems before that, and on a global scale.

‘We are already talking about the next step forward. We’ve got a company that is interested in using our materials. It’s early days yet, but I’m hoping that in three to four years’ time, we’ll get these materials used.’

Jon’s love affair with technical ceramics began after he enrolled at Leeds University in the late 1970s to study for his first degree.

‘I followed the family tradition: my grandfather was an engineer with his own company and my father was a metallurgist. I chose to specialise in ceramics because they interested me. I enjoy the whole concept of materials because they are everywhere. I have simultaneously worked on a process to make toilet bowls and a process to make jet engines, so it’s the sheer diversity that I like.’

After obtaining his PhD in 1984, Jon spent a year at the Universities of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) – ‘I’d just got married when I went out there, so my wife and I enjoyed a year-long, paid honeymoon’ – before returning to Leeds. He then worked his way up the career ladder at the universities of Nottingham, Brunel and Loughborough before coming to Birmingham in January 2014.

He brought with him a passion not only for his subject but also for knowledge transfer.

‘I’m not someone who does something just for the pure, basic science; I enjoy doing things that I can see taken up by industry. I’ll do basic science, but it’s a means to an end rather than an end in itself.’