Ceramic nanoparticle coating protects aero engines from heat

21 March 2014

Researchers at University West in Sweden are using nanoparticles in the heat-insulating surface layer that protects aircraft engines from heat.

In tests, this is said to have increased the service life of the coating by 300 per cent and it is hoped that components with the new thermal barrier coating will be in production within two years.

To increase the service life of aircraft engines, a heat-insulating surface layer is sprayed on top of the metal components. The goal of the University West research group was to control the structure of the surface layer in order to increase its service life and insulating capability.

The thermal barrier coating is manufactured using thermal spray application, whereby a ceramic powder is sprayed onto a surface at a very high temperature –7,000 to 8,000 degrees C – using a plasma stream. The ceramic particles melt and strike the surface, where they form a protective layer that is approximately half a millimetre thick.

‘The base is a ceramic powder, but we have also tested adding plastic to generate pores that make the material more elastic,’ said Nicholas Curry, who has presented his doctoral thesis on the subject.

The ceramic layer is subjected to stress due to changes in temperature that make the material alternately expand and contract. Making the layer elastic became paramount and over the last few years the researchers have focused on further refining the microstructure in order to make the layer useful for industry.

‘We have tested the use of a layer that is formed from nanoparticles. The particles are so fine that we aren’t able to spray the powder directly onto a surface. Instead, we first mix the powder with a liquid that is then sprayed. This is called suspension plasma spray application,’ Curry said in a statement.

Curry and his colleagues have since tested the new layer thousands of times in thermal shock tests to simulate the temperature changes in an aircraft engine. Results showed that the new coating layer lasts at least three times as long as a conventional layer while it has low heat conduction abilities.

‘An aircraft motor that lasts longer does not need to undergo expensive, time-consuming service as often; this saves the aircraft industry money. The new technology is also significantly cheaper than the conventional technology, which means that more businesses will be able to purchase the equipment,’ said Curry.

One of the most important issues for the researchers to solve is how they can monitor what happens to the structure of the coating over time, and to understand how the microstructure in the layer works.

‘A conventional surface layer looks like a sandwich, with layer upon layer. The surface layer we produce with the new method can be compared more to standing columns. This makes the layer more flexible and easier to monitor. And it adheres to the metal, regardless of whether the surface is completely smooth or not. The most important thing is not the material itself, but how porous it is,’ said Curry.

The research was conducted in collaboration with GKN Aerospace and Siemens Industrial Turbomachinery.

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The Engineer Q&A: Space debris

19 March 2014

Your chance to question our expert panel about dealing with the space debris that orbits Earth.

The threat posed by the millions of pieces of debris orbiting the Earth to our now-crucial space infrastructure has been a growing concern of scientists and engineers and, increasingly, the wider public for a number of years now. It’s even become the topic of an Oscar-winning film.

But while plenty of ideas have been put forward as ways to clean up our space junkyard, no mission has yet been confirmed to put any of them into action. There’s not even an international treaty to minimise the creation of space debris.

For the latest of our reader Q&As, send us your questions about the technical and practical challenges of dealing with this pressing problem and we’ll have a panel of experts in the field provide answers.

Some of the ideas for removing pieces of space debris include:

  • rounding them up with a large, passive sky sweeper;
  • capturing them with a tractor beam;
  • grabbing them with a harpoon or mechanical claw;
  • using lasers to shoot them out of orbit;
  • equiping new satellites with sails to pull them out of orbit when their mission is over.

Use the comments box below to send us your questions about any of the technologies above or about the topic in general by the end of Thursday and we’ll publish the responses in the next issue of The Engineer magazine and here on the website.

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Barometer indicates more fair weather for England’s SMEs

25 February 2014

SMEs in England are set to embark on a major investment drive in order to meet expected new demand, according to a new survey.

The latest Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS) Barometer’s special focus found that 86 per cent of respondents were planning to invest in capital equipment over the next twelve months, with companies looking to spend an average of £121,000.

With over 80,000 firms making up the English SME manufacturing community, this could equate to hundreds of millions of fresh industry investment between now and 2015.

Two thirds of the firms questioned are looking to purchase new plant and machinery, just over half are focused on upgrading IT/communications infrastructure, and nearly a third on improving premises.

The main reasons driving these investment plans were boosting efficiency and quality (31 per cent), followed by developing new products/processes (30 per cent) and extending existing capacity (22 per cent).

Fewer than one in five companies (19 per cent) said they planned to approach banks to fund capital equipment purchases in the next year, with manufacturers instead choosing to secure money via grants (27 per cent) and the Regional Growth Fund (21 per cent).

A record 864 SME manufacturers responded to the latest MAS Barometer, which provides an overview of economic conditions and issues faced by the sector during October to December 2013.

A total of 62 per cent of companies reported an increase in sales over the last six months (a 6 per cent rise on the last report), whilst over three quarters of businesses (76 per cent) expect to boost sales between now and June 2014.

In a statement, Steven Barr, Head of MAS, said: ’There is a definite feel good factor around English manufacturing at the moment and these latest figures reinforce positive reports from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) together with encouraging Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data.’

For the first time since the national Barometer launched in 2012, more than half (53 per cent) of English manufacturers are expecting to take staff on over the next six months, marking a 14 per cent rise on the previous report.

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£10m boost for advanced materials research

12 February 2014

Projects are underway in the UK to find safer, sustainable alternatives to rare, expensive, and difficult to source raw materials used by industry.

Funded with a £10.3m grant from EPSRC and £2.8m from industry, the universities of Bristol, Surrey, York and UCL are to lead projects to asses the viability of using different, replacement materials in the manufacturing supply chain, considering their properties, cost, performance, and scalability.

They will investigate how production processes or technology will need to adapt to using these newer materials. It is claimed that by the end of the study manufacturers will be able to adopt alternatives.

In a statement David Willetts, minister for universities and science said: ‘As one of the eight great technologies of the future, advanced materials will ensure safer and more sustainable development of resources to boost the capability of UK manufacturing.

‘This investment in research will help keep the UK ahead in the global race for exciting manufacturing innovations.’

UCL will lead a project looking at alternatives for transparent conducting oxide materials used in window coatings, solar power panels, phones and computers, from nanoparticle dispersions, inks and thin films. Researchers will replace tin, which is expensive and indium, which is scarce, with common elements like titanium, aluminium and zinc.

In Bristol, researchers will develop new active materials for photovoltaic solar cells based on abundant and low cost elements. The research aims at replacing key elements such as gallium, indium, cadmium and tellurium, while implementing processes compatible with large-scale manufacturing.

Surrey researchers will look at the synthesis and processing of alternative thermoelectric and piezoelectric materials used in sensors, actuators and energy harvesters; whilst at York, research will investigate waste biomass and waste CO2 to replace petrochemical feedstocks in the manufacture of polymers.

David Delpy, chief executive, EPSRC said:  ‘Through the development and deployment of improved materials, processes and products that will come from this research, UK industries will be able to create wealth and new jobs, whilst at the same time tackling the societal and environmental challenges that resulted from the use of the original materials which were often rare and difficult to refine.’

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