Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Quartz Inversions and Conversions

You need to know about this in both casting and when using ceramic pots in the kiln.

Crystalline solids are rather temperamental and quartz is no different. Quartz is a crystalline form of silica in that it has a three dimensional regular pattern of molecular units. These form naturally in nature because lengthy cooling times allow arrangement. Quartz is made of a network of triangular pyramid (tetrahedron) shaped molecules of silicon combined with four oxygens.

Unfortunately, the quartz delights in changing the orientation of the tetrahedron shaped molecules with respect to each other, thus loosening or tightening the whole mass (and thus changing its total size). It exhibits twenty or more “phases”. A change to another phase is called a “silica conversion”. The most significant phases are quartz, tridymite, crystobalite, and glass.

Changes which occur between these are reversible, that is, the change which occurs during heat-up is inverted during cool down. These changes are thus called “quartz inversions”. These inversions, unfortunately, often have associated, rather sudden, volume changes. That means that quartz conversions are something to consider when optimizing the fired properties; quartz inversions are something to consider when firing to prevent cracking losses. There are two important inversions you need to know about because of their sudden occurrence during temperature increase and decrease.

The first is simply called ‘quartz inversion’ and it occurs quite quickly in the 570°C range (1060°F). In this case, the crystal lattice straightens itself out slightly, thus expanding 1% or so. This is therefore an important temperature in casting as it is an expansion on the heat up and a contraction, “grabbing” the glass on the way down. This is the reason for various modifiers when silica or flint is used as the strengthener.

The second is crystobalite inversion at 226°C. This is a little nastier because it generates a sudden change of 2.5% in volume. This material has many more forms than quartz, so it is complex to say the least. However, while all bodies will have some quartz, you won’t have a problem with crystobalite inversion unless there is crystobalite in your body. Crystobalite forms naturally and slowly during cooling from above cone 3 (1104-1149°C). It forms much better if pure crystobalite is added to the body to seed the crystals or in the presence of catalysts (e.g. talc in earthenware bodies). Thus, this element exists in most ceramic moulds and moving slowly around 226°C should be observed when firing containers made of ceramic materials.