Sintering is effective when the process reduces the porosity and enhances properties such as strength, electrical conductivity, translucency and thermal conductivity; yet, in other cases, it may be useful to increase its strength but keep its gas absorbency constant as in filters or catalysts. During the firing process, atomic diffusion drives powder surface elimination in different stages, starting from the formation of necks between powders to final elimination of small pores at the end of the process.
The driving force for densification is the change in free energy from the decrease in surface area and lowering of the surface free energy by the replacement of solid-vapor interfaces. It forms new but lower-energy solid-solid interfaces with a total decrease in free energy occurring. On a microscopic scale, material transfer is affected by the change in pressure and differences in free energy across the curved surface. If the size of the particle is small (and its curvature is high), these effects become very large in magnitude. The change in energy is much higher when the radius of curvature is less than a few micrometres, which is one of the main reasons why much ceramic technology is based on the use of fine-particle materials.
For properties such as strength and conductivity, the bond area in relation to the particle size is the determining factor. The variables that can be controlled for any given material are the temperature and the initial grain size, because the vapor pressure depends upon temperature. Through time, the particle radius and the vapor pressure are proportional to (p0)2/3 and to (p0)1/3, respectively.
The source of power for solid-state processes is the change in free or chemical potential energy between the neck and the surface of the particle. This energy creates a transfer of material through the fastest means possible; if transfer were to take place from the particle volume or the grain boundary between particles, then there would be particle reduction and pore destruction. The pore elimination occurs faster for a trial with many pores of uniform size and higher porosity where the boundary diffusion distance is smaller. For the latter portions of the process, boundary and lattice diffusion from the boundary become important.
Control of temperature is very important to the sintering process, since grain-boundary diffusion and volume diffusion rely heavily upon temperature, the size and distribution of particles of the material, the materials composition, and often the sintering environment to be controlled.