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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials April 2016 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Marianne Monteforte

Self-Lubricating Metal-Matrix Composites

By Cassandra Harris
Harris is a Strategic Business Insights technology analyst specializing in materials for renewable energy.

Why is this topic significant?

Self-lubricating metal-matrix composites are entering the market through start-up company Intelligent Composites. Self-lubricating metal-matrix composites could potentially reduce fuel usage in combustion engines and offer energy savings to a range of industries.

Description

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee began development of self-lubricating metal-matrix composites over 20 years ago. The technology is now penetrating the commercial sphere for the first time through start-up company Intelligent Composites (IC), which has branded the self-lubricating metal-matrix composites "IC Hybrid composites."

Self-lubricating metal-matrix composites combine a metal matrix with solid-lubricant additives such as carbonous materials, molybdenum disulfide, or boron nitride, which reduce energy dissipation between moving parts. The IC Hybrid composites are composed of aluminum, silicon carbide, and graphite in various proportions.

Analytical-testing company PFMan LLC reported performance results of a rotor-housing assembly coated with the IC Hybrid composites. In comparison with Nikasil-coated aluminum-alloy (A356) rotor housing, the IC Hybrid variant can reduce fuel consumption by 60% and reduce the rotor-housing temperature from 158°C to 96°C.

IC is initially manufacturing engine-cylinder liners for power-sport vehicles such as quad bikes, snowmobiles, and watercraft. The company also plans to target original equipment manufacturers in the automotive industry.

Implications

Self-lubricating metal-matrix composites could potentially reduce the requirement for toxic external lubricants within engines and reduce friction in industrial components in use in the automotive, aerospace, and marine industries. Reducing fuel consumption in automotive applications by only one or two percent, for example, has the potential to deliver significant fuel and cost savings, while also reducing carbon emissions.

A limitation of graphite-reinforced aluminum composites is their poor mechanical properties in comparison with the properties of noncomposite alloys. Therefore, applications that require high mechanical resistance are likely limited. However, adding ceramic particles such as silicon carbide through the process of "hybridization" partially improves mechanical properties.

The addition of carbon-based nanomaterials such as graphene and carbon nanotubes to aluminum-graphite composites increases composite mechanical strength. However, graphene or carbon-nanotube-reinforced composites are more expensive and difficult to prepare by traditional casting techniques. Reduction in the manufacturing cost of graphene and carbon nanotubes may increase the breadth of self-lubricating metal-matrix-composite applications.

Impacts/Disruptions

The key driving factor for the commercialization of IC Hybrid–composite technology is fuel efficiency, which will become more important as fuel costs rise and concerns about carbon emissions intensify. The commercialization of hybrid composite materials will benefit from low cost and established composite-fabrication techniques. However self-lubricating metal-matrix composites is a potentially disruptive technology, which mature markets such as the automobile industry may be slow to accept.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Automobiles, aerospace, marine, sports vehicles

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Extracting Rare-Earth Metals from Coal

By Cassandra Harris
Harris is a Strategic Business Insights technology analyst specializing in materials for renewable energy.

Why is this topic significant?

Rare-earth metals are critical components in consumer electronics, catalysts, and energy materials. Scientists from the United States have developed a low-cost method to extract rare-earth metals from coal waste with the aim of reducing the country's dependence on rare-earth-metal imports from China.

Description

Rare-earth metals have unique properties, which often render them irreplaceable in many applications. Over 90% of global rare-earth-metal supplies are sourced and exported through mining activities in China, a country that has monopolized the market for many years and issued trade embargos against Japan and the West in 2010 (see the June 2015 Viewpoints). Approximately 65% of global rare-earth-metal resources are actually outside China. However, extraction methods are largely undeveloped or noneconomical.

In March 2016, researchers at Virginia Tech—in collaboration with the US Department of Energy and private investors—developed a hydrophobic-hydrophilic-separation (HHS) technique to extract rare-earth metals from coal and coal by-products. The method uses reagents to exchange rare-earth ions from coal waste, which then serves for further processing. According to the Virginia Tech researchers, the technology is low in cost and a potential competitor to mining methods.

Implications

The HHS-extraction technology could provide a long-term supply of rare-earth metals; already concerns exist that Chinese resources will deplete within the next 20 years. However, coal is a finite resource, and the HHS technology would ultimately spin off from carbon-intensive energy production. The commercial release of this HHS technology would likely initially provide further incentive for coal extraction, the HHS technology may become more sustainable with the advent of more robust metal-recycling methods.

The HHS-extraction development illustrates the US concerns about the sustainability of its rare-earth imports—a concern that intensified after the closing of the country's only rare-earth mine in California in mid-2015 and the Chinese trade embargo that affected the United States in 2010.

The United States will undoubtedly want to establish self-sufficient methods of rare-earth-metals manufacturing, which it heavily relies on for defense and energy applications. Therefore, the HHS technology will likely attract further investment. However, this technology is in its infancy, and China will likely remain the dominant producer of rare-earth metals and compounds.

Impacts/Disruptions

The global rare-earth-metal market is segmented by application into magnets, catalysts, metallurgy, ceramics, and phosphors and has been growing rapidly in recent years, driven by the increasing demand of the Asia-Pacific electronics industry. According to a report by Research and Markets, the global rare-earth-metals market could continue to grow by a compounded annual growth rate of over 10% between 2015 and 2020 as applications in energy and medical devices advance.

Export quotas on rare-earth metals initiated by China in today's market have the potential to disrupt manufacturing platforms and rare-earth-metals prices more significantly than in 2010. Any potential future trade embargoes in rare-earth-metals distribution will depend on the stability of the global political landscape and on other trade-sensitive commodities or goods. The sustainability of rare-earth-metal extraction from coal will also be dependent on the development of carbon-sequestration technologies and legislation of carbon quotas.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Magnets, catalysts, metallurgy, ceramics, phosphors, energy, clean energy

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: