Ceramics, the substance of dinnerware and decorative pottery, could soon join steel and plastic as a major industrial material. Its new uses include car engines and drill bits.
Technically, ceramics refers to almost all materials made from nonmetallic minerals and processed by high heat (including glass). The new ''fine'' or ''high performance'' ceramics, however, are quite different from the old clay pot. It requires precise and complex manufacturing techniques. It is also harder , more durable, or more heat-resistant than traditional ceramics.
Ceramics are made from common materials such as silicon (found in sand), alumina, and carbon. Thus many countries are scrambling to develop ceramic replacements for rare metals, such as cobalt and tungsten.
The following are a few of the areas where competition is mounting:
* Engines. A partly ceramic engine - using ceramics for vital parts as well as metals - could be run at much higher temperatures than conventional motors. It shouldn't need a cooling system, which would make it lighter and simpler.
Such ''ceramic engines'' may be able to wring as much as 30 percent more out of a gallon of gas. Dr. R. Nathan Katz, a ceramics specialist with the US Army's Materials and Mechanics Research Center in Watertown, Mass., estimates that use of ceramics in engines and some industrial equipment (for instance, as heat exchangers) could cut the US energy bill by $17.5 billion a year by the year 2000.
In the United States, the big three automakers have been developing ceramic components for a gas turbine or diesel engine for several years. Swedish, West German, and Japanese firms are also rushing to be the first into this market. Two Japanese companies, NGK Insulator and NGK Spark Plug (no relation), have unveiled experimental ''ceramic engines'' within the past 14 months.
Even so, experts say the first ceramic engine probably won't show up under the hood until the mid- to late-1980s. Then it will be limited to only a few parts of the engine, such as piston heads and cylinder linings.
* Electronics. Partly because it is a good insulator, ceramics are being used increasingly in capacitors, fiber-optic components, and other high-technology devices. Analysts estimate the market for ceramic electronic goods will top $10 billion by 1990.
Not surprisingly, the Japanese are keying much of their effort in this direction. Already they have captured the lion's share of the important ceramic ''packaging'' market. This is the use of ceramic materials as the protective housing for semiconductor chips, a $350-million-a-year industry.
''There is the potential of having the Japanese dictate to our electronics industry,'' says Dr. H. Kent Bowen, Ford professor of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ''The next five years will really determine whether the US will roll over and play dead'' in the ceramics field.
* Machine tools. Ceramics have long been used in industrial grinding machines. But soon lathes, drills, cutting tools, and other machinery may be made out of a hybrid of metal and ceramics. The advantages include better wear resistance and the ability to run machines at higher speeds with greater precision. Eventually entire machines could be ceramic - gears, bearings, and all. Machines that walk
Engineers have often tried, unsuccessfully, to design machines that walk on animal-like legs. Now advances in computer-control technology have opened a new prospect - machines that can hop, crawl, and even run. Carnegie-Mellon Univeristy researchers Marc H. Raibert and Ivan E. Sutherland have built two machines to explore the idea of locomotion on mechanical legs. One is a six-legged, human-driven device that crawls along with an insectlike gait. The other resembles a computer-controlled pogo stick. The two engineers, describing their work in the January issue of Scientific American, believe machines will eventually be made that can scamper about in terrain too rough for conventional vehicles - a talent with useful industrial, agricultural, and military applications. Gymnasium for the desk bound
If those who find staring at a computer terminal all day monotonous and sedentary, Nathan Edelson has a better idea. He calls it the active office. It features a cubicle equipped with a computer terminal, dentist-style chair, bicycle exerciser, and electronic treadmill. The San Francisco inventor says a little jogging and bicycle riding - at deskside - could boost productivity. It also could make life in the automated office more bearable for millions of clerical and other workers.