With global climate change, a population growing by 80 million people a year, and energy demand expected to jump 40 % by 2030, these are challenging times. The world needs to learn to do with less than in the past. And yet, expectations are not likely to decrease. On the contrary, pressure will only increase as the developing world seeks its share of resources.
People need to consume less. Companies must find new ways to reduce their use of raw materials and to use less energy. Materials science — the design and improvement of the metals, plastics, and ceramics we use every day — is at the forefront of making that possible.
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In such fields as automotive and transportation, aerospace, and energy production, companies switch where they can to lighter materials. The substitutes need less energy to machine, form, move, and operate. Less energy use also means reduced carbon emissions. However, there is a drawback. Lighter materials often lack important characteristics that heavier ones have. If you replace steel with aluminum in parts of an engine, you reduce weight but lose resiliency and strength.
What materials science researchers and engineers have found is that supplementing and improving materials at the surface level can lead to less energy use, greater performance and service life, and a lighter ecological footprint.
The treatments, called coating, have been around for decades and are capable of delivering astounding benefits. You see basic examples every day, such as the color baked onto the steel tubing of a bicycle or even paint that protects the exterior of a house. But the newest high tech coatings do far more than protect from the elements or add a splash of fashion.
These days, coatings can reduce friction and improve the characteristics of moving parts in engines, brakes, turbines, control systems, seals, and valves. They help machining tools cut and shape equipment components more efficiently. Industries reduce their carbon footprint as parts and tools last longer, needing less replacement, and energy use decreases.
For example, so-called thermal spray coatings in which hot, ionized gases are used to melt metal-based powders and propel them onto the surface to create coatings in successive layers that vary in thickness from the width of a line made by a very fine ink pen to the mark a medium mechanical pencil might make. In the automotive and trucking industry, thermal spray coatings on the interior moving parts of an engine improve wear and performance characteristics. They also reduce friction, which means less energy wasted on heat and, ultimately, greater energy efficiency. In the oil and gas field, such coatings help components withstand heat, corrosion, water, abrasive soil, sand and gravel while continuing to do their job. In jet engines, the benefits from thermal spray coatings are even more impressive. For instance, the high-tech coatings used in a fleet of A320 family of aircrafts enable millions of liters of fuel to be saved and thousands of tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to be reduced every single day.
Sports cars, like Porsche’s 918 Spyder, also benefit from thermal spray cylinder bore coatings, getting higher performance while reducing fuel and oil consumption. Some typical improvements from surface solutions applied in automobiles are reductions in fuel consumption of between 2 % and 4 %, engine blocks that are lighter by 12 %, and a 30 % decrease in oil consumption. The benefits are important as Europe, the USA, and China put stricter limits on CO2 emissions in the automotive industry in the coming years.
Thin-film coatings provide benefits in a different range of applications. Coatings as thin as a tenth to a fifth the diameter of a human hair reduce fuel consumption, increase durability, and improve performance. For instance, machining tools gain enhanced hardness, even diamond-grade hardness, and wear resistance, allowing those in the aerospace and energy sectors to increase productivity, efficiency, and extended tool life.
Although coating technology is something that most people never notice, it is part of the materials science revolution that helps humanity consume less without making do. Oerlikon Balzers and Oerlikon Metco are two brands at the forefront of developing thin-film, thermal spray and other coating technologies. Through materials, coating services, synchronizer and turbine components, they help companies improve performance and reduce environmental impact.
By Erik Sherman