Carbide ceramics as SiC, TiC or ZrC are potential candidates for high temperature applications such as fourth generation nuclear plants because of their refractory or low activation under neutron irradiation properties. Nevertheless, the typical drawbacks of hard ceramics (brittleness) could limit their use in these applications. In order to overcome these problems, one possibility is to decrease the grain size down to the nanometric scale. Enhancement of the mechanical properties is actually expected in such nanostructured ceramics (ductility) and moreover, these nanomaterials could also take advantage of their strong grain boundaries density to withstand severe irradiation conditions. If one wants to quantify the expected enhancement of the properties, the first challenge that has to be faced is the elaboration of the nanostructured ceramics samples. That means being able to synthesize the pre-ceramics nanopowders in weighable amounts, and then finding an efficient way to sinter them aiming at the maximum densification together with avoiding grain growth.
In this contribution, we present SiC, TiC and ZrC nanopowders synthesis by laser pyrolysis and inductively coupled plasma, together with their densification by different techniques (Hot Isostatic Pressing, Spark Plasma Sintering, High Pressure Flash Sintering). We also report the latest findings obtained on the behavior of SiC nanostructured ceramics under low energy ion irradiation.
Raw micrometric SiC and ZrC powders were used as precursors in the inductively coupled plasma experiment. The production was as high as 1 kg.h-1, with nanograins ranging from 10 to 100 nm in size depending on the synthesis conditions. For the laser pyrolysis method, gaseous precursors (SiH4, C2H2) were used for SiC while liquid alkoxides precursors were used for TiC and ZrC respectively. For SiC, the production rate can reach 100 g.h-1 (laboratory scale) with grain sizes ranging from 10 to 50 nm with narrow size distribution. For TiC and ZrC nanopowders, the production rate is lower than for SiC because of the use of liquid precursors that leads to a worse yield. In this latter case, the carbide phase is obtained after carburization of the laser pyrolyzed TiO2 (or ZrO2) / free carbon nanocomposites. The final carbide nanograins size is in the 50 – 80 nm range. After sintering, the obtained pellets show different characteristics depending on the starting powder and the sintering technique. With the right sintering conditions, the densification reaches 95 % without any sintering additives, with no (or limited) grain growth and no modification of the crystalline structure. Concerning the properties of the obtained nanostructured ceramics, the SiC pellets, together with the as-synthesized nanopowders, were submitted to low energy ion irradiation in order to compare their behavior to conventional SiC materials.