Industrial processing and Covid-19

Circular saw blade with tungsten-carbide inserts (Photo Basilicofresco)
Circular saw blade with tungsten-carbide inserts (Photo Basilicofresco)

The Covid-19 pandemic has stopped or at least slowed down many industries’ operations with a number of consequences and ramifications. The shutdown, which is hopefully only temporary, of a factory, is a clearly visible event, but behind it, there may be other events connected to it and less visible. For example, there are important materials in several different industries such as tungsten carbide and silicon nitride: in their case, there are problems connected to production and distribution, but there’s also the problem connected to research on their performance and to the expansion of their applications.

Tungsten carbide is one of the materials used a lot for industrial tools such as cutting tools, drills, lathes, and others where its high hardness offers better performance than steel. Typically, this material is incorporated in a metal matrix such as cobalt that maximizes its hardness and wear resistance to obtain what’s called cemented carbide.

Silicon nitride is another very hard material that has great industrial importance. It’s a ceramic material that has a low density but at the same time is very resistant mechanically and has a low thermal conductivity. These features make it perfect to build components with very different uses such as:

  • engine parts
  • ball bearings
  • parts of orthopedic implants
  • parts of instruments for satellites and space probes that must withstand extreme conditions
  • insulators for electronic integrated circuits

There are a few cases where these materials have been used even more following the Covid-19 pandemic. Another example of the use of cemented carbide is in the production of components for the ventilators indispensable in the intensive care that saved the lives of many people who contracted the coronavirus. The demand for these ventilators has increased significantly, and the industries in the sector had to take the necessary measures to continue their production while maintaining worker safety.

Many industries using these materials closed or at least slowed down their production since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. This had an impact on the production and distribution of these materials after years of growth achieved thanks to their widespread use in various fields. New applications arrived over time thanks to the research to improve their performance and to exploit them in different ways. The medium-long impact of the current situation on research will have to be assessed when the industries that need cutting-edge solutions will resume their operations.

Silicon nitride bearings (Photo David W. Richerson and Douglas W. Freitag)
Silicon nitride bearings (Photo David W. Richerson and Douglas W. Freitag)

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