Spray-on ceramic coatings to extend life of products: Nuria Espallargas and Fahmi Mubarok named as joint finalists for European Inventor Award 2022
- Spanish chemist and materials engineer Nuria Espallargas and Indonesian material scientist Fahmi Mubarok jointly nominated for European Patent Office (EPO) prize in the field of protective coatings
- Their novel process involves coating ceramic particles to protect them from high temperatures, resulting in a new composite material called ThermaSiC
- Spraying the material at high temperatures onto components such as brake rotors and industrial equipment can extend their lifetime as they can better withstand wear or exposure to chemicals
Munich, 17 May 2022 - The European Patent Office (EPO) announces that Spanish chemist and materials engineer and University professor Nuria Espallargas and Indonesian material scientist and University Associate professor Fahmi Mubarok have been jointly nominated for the European Inventor Award 2022 for a process that allows ceramic materials lacking a melting point to be heated to high temperatures in order to be sprayed onto engineering or industrial components.
Their ground-breaking spray-on ceramic coatings are designed to extend the lifetime of components used in several industries by better protecting them from wear and chemical exposure. The first industrial uses are expected to be in car or train brakes, glass manufacturing tools and equipment used for metal extraction, and an upcoming project with the European Space Agency will test how well the coatings can resist abrasion from sand on the moon and Mars.
"Through their ingenuity, Nuria Espallargas and Fahmi Mubarok have
solved a problem that experts in their field believed to be impossible," says EPO
President António Campinos, announcing the European Inventor Award 2022
finalists. "They are significantly improving the longevity and
durability of industrial products, an essential aspect in the economy of
Espallargas and Mubarok are jointly named as one of four finalists in the "SMEs" category, which recognises exceptional inventors in small companies with fewer than 250 employees and an annual turnover of less than EUR 50 million. The winners of the 2022 edition of the EPO's European Inventor Award will be announced at a virtual ceremony on 21 June.
Creating a new material
The idea behind the invention is rooted in Nuria Espallargas' PhD studies in material science and metallurgical engineering. She became interested in the fact that certain types of ceramic coatings, which are used in industry because of their strength, temperature resistance and low weight, were applied in vacuum chambers and not by a technique called thermal spraying where a material is heated up to temperatures of over 2500 °C and applied with a spray gun. Thermal spraying is cheaper than using a vacuum chamber, and allows a greater range of objects to be coated, but was thought to be impossible for ceramics without a melting point because they vaporise rather than melt at high temperatures.
This gap in knowledge and the assumed impossibility of filling it motivated Espallargas to find a solution. "If a material doesn't have a melting point, in principle it cannot be used in thermal spraying and this was intriguing for me," she says. "[I thought] someone needs to find out how to solve this, because there is a limitation in [the thermal spraying] market for these materials."
Facing scepticism that she could succeed where big players in the thermal spray industry had tried and failed, Espallargas, by then an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), hired Fahmi Mubarok as a PhD student in 2010. His task was to research how silicon carbide - a ceramic and one of the hardest synthetic materials - could be thermally sprayed.
After much trial and error, their eureka moment came after a conversation with colleagues where Espallargas and Mubarok realised that silicon carbide particles had to be protected with something that could fulfil two roles at once: "It came to my mind that it has to have the ability to protect silicon carbide from high temperature exposure and at the same time also bind together the silicon carbide to create a coating," says Mubarok.
This concept of protecting the particles already existed in the thermal spray market for other materials but hadn't been used for ceramics without melting points. Espallargas and Mubarok decided to use yttrium aluminium garnet - a type of oxide that can withstand the extreme temperatures used in thermal spraying - to coat the silicon carbide particles. In 2012, the two scientists succeeded in creating a thermally sprayable silicon carbide powder that produced durable coatings.
Having applied for a patent with the help of their university's technology transfer office when the invention was still at lab scale, Espallargas and Mubarok founded Seram Coatings to commercialise their composite material, called ThermaSiC, in 2014. Espallargas says the patent, which was granted in 2018, was vital to secure investment. "Without a patent, it would have been impossible," she says. "Every time we had a meeting with whoever was going to give us money for purchasing a system or equipment to develop the product, every single one was saying: do you have this protected?"
Since 2017 the company has been producing small volumes of ThermaSic and field testing it with potential clients. It is now ready for industrialisation, with Espallargas foreseeing the product's biggest market to be the US, followed by Japan and the EU. She expects the coating to be used first in the braking industry for cars, trains, trucks, industrial equipment or bicycles.
Several other industries, namely glass, roller and printing manufacturers, are also interested in the commercial usage of the new composite material. Seram Coatings is collaborating with leading roller manufacturers in the US and in Japan, while also working with a major UK printing company that expects to take the coating to market this year to treat the surface of rollers that handle paper.
To date, Seram Coatings has invested close to EUR 1 million to build their own thermal spray facility that enables them to easily make and test coatings for clients on site without having to use third party facilities. The company's research and development team is constantly working on new versions of ThermaSiC and new products with the aim of tapping into new markets. In the next eight to ten years, Seram Coatings sees a potential to sell 225,000 kg of ThermaSiC per year, capturing about 2.9% of the global market for ceramic raw materials used in thermal spray coatings.
Notes to the editor
About the inventors
Nuria Espallargas is an expert in materials science and metallurgical engineering. She completed a master's and PhD degree at the University of Barcelona, Spain, and an additional master's degree at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona before moving to the Department of Engineering Design and Materials at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim to complete a post-doc. In 2009, she became associate professor in the same department, while also being a scientific advisor at SINTEF, one of the largest independent research organisations in Europe. In 2012, Espallargas became professor at NTNU before co-founding a spin-off company, Seram Coatings, in 2014 to commercialise ThermaSiC. Espallargas is currently a professor at NTNU and a board member and investor at Seram Coatings.
Fahmi Mubarok has a Bachelor of Engineering in Material Engineering from the Bandung Institute of Technology in Bandung, Indonesia, and a master's degree in Material Science from the Hamburg University of Technology in Germany. After working as assistant professor in the Department of Engineering at the Sepuluh Nopember Institute of Technology in Surabaya, Indonesia, Mubarok moved to Norway in 2010 for a PhD on thermally sprayed silicon carbide coatings at NTNU with Espallargas as his supervisor. He co-founded Seram Coatings in 2014, where he worked part-time as R&D manager, while also doing a post-doc at NTNU. In 2017, he returned to Indonesia as associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Sepuluh Nopember Institute of Technology, but still takes part in some projects at Seram Coatings.
Espallargas and Mubarok are named inventors in European patent: EP2914760B1
About the European Inventor Award
The European Inventor Award is one of Europe's most prestigious innovation prizes. Launched by the EPO in 2006, the award honours individuals and teams' solutions to some of the biggest challenges of our times. The finalists and winners are selected by an independent jury comprising former Award finalists. Together, they examine the proposals for their contribution towards technical progress, social and sustainable development and economic prosperity. The EPO will confer the Award in four categories (Industry, Research, SMEs and Non-EPO countries), as well as announcing a Lifetime achievement award at a virtual ceremony on 21 June. In addition, the public selects the Popular Prize winner from the 13 finalists by voting on the EPO website in the run-up to the ceremony. Voting is open until 21 June 2022. Read more on the European Inventor Award eligibility and selection criteria.
This year, for the first time, the EPO will also award bright young minds with the Young Inventors prize. The new prize offers a monetary reward to the three finalists to further encourage them to find creative solutions to pressing sustainable development challenges.
About the EPO
With 6 400 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening co-operation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO's centralised patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world's leading authority in patent information and patent searching.
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