Space Shuttle Ceramics

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Grade Level: 7th - 9th; Type: Physical Science, Chemistry


Investigate the advantages of the use of ceramics in engines such as the tiles used in Space Shuttle.

 Research Questions:

  • What are ceramics? Cite examples of ceramic materials.
  • How is clay turned into a ceramic?
  • What are some very useful properties of ceramics?
  • How are some of the useful properties applied for useful purposes?
  • What is ceramic engineering?
  • How has NASA utilized the useful properties of ceramics in the Shuttle Space Program?
  • How has Toyota attempted to use ceramic engineering in its manufacture of cars?

On the information level, the student will become acquainted with the field of semiconductors and ceramic engineering. Clay and other earth materials that are shaped and fired at high temperatures form materials which we call ceramics. For examples of ceramics we can list fine china, porcelain statues and earthenware flower pots. Due to the specific properties of these materials such as being good insulators, being resistant to water and being able to withstand high temperatures, many uses have been developed resulting in the field of ceramic engineering. Specifically, being heat resistant, ceramics can be used for many tasks that materials like metal and polymers are not suitable for.

Today ceramic materials are used in mining, aerospace, and medicine, food and chemical industries. The space shuttle uses high tech ceramic materials to withstand extreme temperature changes that are caused by friction when the space shuttle re-enters our atmosphere. At the present time ceramic tiles are used and research continues on the construction of a ceramic engine. We recognize that given our limited use of fossil fuel, we would be wise to replace many of the metal components of cars with ceramic parts resulting in increased fuel efficiency. In brief, many students become intrigued with ceramic engineering and may consider this as a future career choice.

On a process level, this project centers on arm chair research with a minor emphasis on experimentation. The experimental component focuses on a comparison of the magnetic properties of ceramic magnets and iron magnets to demonstrate the very useful and surprising super conductive properties of ceramics. Mention and reference is made in the bibliography of cooling a tiny magnet, sitting on a black metal disc with liquid nitrogen and watching the magnet take off into the air, spinning and spinning. The handling of liquid nitrogen is dangerous and must be done by the teacher. 

The specific experiment provided here is safe. However, wear your safety goggles, apron and gloves. The student uses the scientific method and prepares a report demonstrating the use of said method. In this case, photos may be taken of the process. They are interesting and serve as a dramatic display.


  • Large ceramic horseshoe magnet
  • Large iron horseshoe magnet of the same size as the ceramic magnet
  • Iron filings
  • Box of large paper clips
  • Camera

The ceramic magnet can be purchased from Radio Shack or xUmp Science Supplies.

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