UniServices launches platform technology for hard-wearing surface coatings

Surface coatings are used on virtually everything that is hi-tech manufactured.

University of Auckland's commercial arm, UniServices, is launching a patented platform technology for hi-tech manufacturing that provides an alternative to current environmentally-unfriendly coatings, and the spun-out firm expects to start raising capital next year.

Surface coatings are used on virtually everything that is hi-tech manufactured - from planes and cars to mobile phones and circuit boards, in order to make them stronger, more hard-wearing, and better able to resist corrosion. Following initial market testing with end users and surface coatings providers in New Zealand and the US, UniServices is spinning out a company to commercialise the platform technology.

Cirrus Materials Science will be run by Glen Slater and Chris Goode, who have been consulting to UniServices on what technologies to spin out. Both formerly worked for INRO Technologies, the kiwi robotic forklift company that was sold in 2012 to a US firm. The Cirrus Dopant coating was the best option from the research the pair considered and it would be commercialised in partnership with global surface coatings providers, Slater said.

He and Goode have worked on an outcomes basis, providing sweat equity rather than being paid. To date, much of the $406,000 invested by UniServices and the government in proving up the technology has been offset by overseas industry research grants.

Early next year the company will do its first capital raising. Slater said it will seek between $750,000 to $1 million of seed funding from angel investors and potential industry partners to take the product to market within the next two years. The university and researchers retain a stake in the company.

Researchers from Auckland University's Department of Chemicals & Materials Engineering, under Professor Wei Gao, spent the past four years developing a thinner, environmentally-friendly, nano-composite element that adds strength and durability into metallic coatings.

Gao said the laboratory results showed the nano-composite technology improved hardness by 25 to 40 percent and wear resistance by 40 to 70 percent. That dropped to as low as 20 percent overall improvement when used at scale by an Auckland coatings provider.

"We have trialled a lot of different types of coatings - nickel, silver, and gold, and all of them have shown improvement," Gao said.

US consultant Keith Legge, who has helped connect Cirrus to American coatings providers and end users, said he rated the technology an 80 percent chance of success, mainly because it was the easiest of competing alternatives to apply. A driver for change is environmental regulators in the US and Europe virtually banning the use of hard chrome from 2017.

"The changing regulations relating to the use of hexavalent chrome and cadmium in manufacturing mean that some very big players are seeking alternatives - we are one of the few potential candidates in the world right now," Slater said.

The technology was recently presented at a US workshop to some big industry players such as Boeing, where the level of interest it received encouraged them to proceed with commercialisation, he said.

Potential applications range from automotive and aerospace parts to ultra-smooth hulls on boats to medical devices such as cartilage replacement.

Legge said the potential market was huge but it was hard convincing providers the technology would work at scale without causing any detriment to the expensive coatings process or the end product.

On his advice, the first target would be electronics products because players in that market tended to make quicker decisions on new applications compared to others such as aircraft manufacturers.

"This is not the holy grail. It won't be right for every single application but it is a good candidate for quite a few," Slater said.


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