Getting an Edge on the Competition
Collaboration produces an award-winning, new technology
The R&D 100 Awards presented by R&D Magazine to scientists and engineers for their technological prowess are sometimes referred to as the "Academy Awards of Science." This year ORNL won seven, and four of them went to researchers in the laboratory's Industrial Technologies Program. ITP Manager Craig Blue says the program provides a way for ORNL to collaborate with industry to develop energy-related technologies that improve the ability of U.S. industries to succeed in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.
One of this year's award-winning technologies is CermaClad, a process for creating wear- and corrosion-resistant coatings on a wide range of metal surfaces. Developed jointly by ORNL and MesoCoat of Euclid, Ohio, and in collaboration with the Edison Materials Technology Center of Dayton, Ohio, CermaClad is expected to be used initially as a protective coating on the inner surfaces of pipelines —both above and below ground.
Blue notes that the CermaClad process makes extensive use of technologies that were originally developed at ORNL. In fact, Greg Engleman, MesoCoat's chief technology officer, worked at the laboratory from 1998 until 2007. Engleman says he and Blue helped install the lab's first plasma arc lamp facility. "At the time, I heard there was a company called Powdermet looking at this technology for processing coatings," Engleman recalls. "So I decided to venture out and go to work for them. MesoCoat was spun off from Powdermet in 2008 with the intention of promoting both plasma arc lamp technology and a drop-in powder feedstock for thermal spray technologies."
"The laboratory's main contribution to the CermaClad collaboration was providing the plasma arc lamp technology," explains Blue. This technology uses an infrared plasma arc lamp for "liquid phase fusing" of ceramic/metallic coatings. The process involves spraying a metallic or composite material onto a surface. Then to ensure a good bond between the surface and the coating, the coating is heated until it turns liquid. The result is a wear-resistant coating on a metal surface. Researchers use plasma arc lamps that can fuse an area up to 30 centimeters wide, whereas traditional fusing uses a centimeterwide laser beam. This approach is more energy-efficient and provides a more homogeneous coating than other fusing technologies.
Engleman says that when MesoCoat licensed the plasma arc lamp technology from ORNL, the lab also provided a great deal of information about potential trouble spots in applying the technology and how to get past those problems. "That information was very helpful in our effort to get this technology to market. All of the basic research done at the laboratory gave us an advantage over the competition when we started to look for capital to move this technology forward."
Faster, cheaper, better
CermaClad coatings encompass a range of applications, but they are primarily focused on improving corrosion and wear resistance. The most popular application is currently CRA materials—corrosion resistant alloys—for use in the oil and gas market. MesoCoat is using CRA materials to coat the inside surfaces of 12-meter-long oil pipes. The coating reduces corrosion and increases both the lifetime of the pipe and the efficiency of the pumping process. "We can use this technology in any pipe from 20 centimeters in diameter up," Engleman says. The process that MesoCoat is using is 25 to 180 times faster than traditional weld or laser cladding, and speeding up the process results in considerable cost savings. "We are still establishing a price point, but our intention is to be below the price point of weld overlay claddings," he adds.
MesoCoat is also working with a major oil company to explore the use of CermaClad pipe for undersea use as well. This potential customer wants to use CermaClad coating to improve the efficiency of oil pumping. Engleman explains that current methods of pipe cladding create small ridges inside the pipe. Those little ridges create turbulence, which slows down the flow of oil and requires higher pumping pressures. The CermaClad process puts down a smoother coating that reduces ridges and allows smoother flow of oil through the pipe.
While the oil industry is the first market MesoCoat is exploring, the company is also looking into a number of other applications. Engleman sees potential applications in the transportation industry for a product called CermaClad-LT, which would be used to treat cargo tanks for corrosive materials or chemicals and prevent corrosion and wear in containers used to store spent nuclear fuel.
Maintaining an edge
ORNL's relationship with MesoCoat has been an unqualified success and shows no sign of ending any time soon. Engleman says that in addition to their ongoing research, the two organizations have signed an agreement to conduct further studies on wear- and corrosion- resistant materials and are discussing collaborative research in other areas as well. "These joint projects will allow us to develop materials to improve the CermaClad process, maintain our edge in the market, and introduce more products more quickly. The opportunity to partner with ORNL on this research has been invaluable; there is no place else we could have performed this work."
"Our relationship with MesoCoat is a good example of what a national laboratory can do to support U.S. industry," Blue observes. "Our job is to develop a technology to the point where private companies like MesoCoat can apply this know-how to create successful commercial products."—Jim Pearce