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Heavyweight investment for lightweight ceramics

Heavyweight investment for lightweight ceramics

Research funded by UK Ministry of Defence and conducted by Dr Hywel Jones of our Materials and Engineering Research Institute (MERI) won a national award in 2012 for the most commercially promising UK materials development.

The novel material compositions and innovative production process that led to the award were developed through a partnership with Dr Anthony Pick, an industrial ceramicist, and led to the creation of XeraCarb Ltd. The University spin out was established to manufacture the new lightweight, wear-resistant ceramic composite material, suitable for a range of applications including body armour, wear resistant materials and kiln furniture.

The company has attracted significant venture capital investment and has been awarded development grants from Technology Strategy Board and development contracts from MOD.

The research

XeraCarb’s founders, Dr Hywel Jones from the Materials and Engineering Research Institute and Dr Tony Pick, an independent ceramics consultant, met through a series of industry outreach workshops held at Sheffield Hallam bringing together research and commercial expertise. Their early research investigated the properties of the novel composites and optimised the production processes.

The research identified the appropriate combinations of silicon carbide, silicon nitride, aluminium oxide and a sintering enhancement additive to produce a ceramic composite with enhanced properties using low temperate production techniques. Results indicated that there was significant potential for the material to be used in the development of lighter weight ceramic body armour.

Early results attracted funding from the Ministry of Defence, leading to the development of a material that is up to 30% lighter than other armour ceramics, but provides equal performance. The material has significant advantages over traditional armour – it is lighter, there are lower production costs, and it has the ability to form complex shapes. It also demonstrates good performance against multiple hits, a vulnerability widely recognised in ceramic armour.

As well as armour the enhanced properties of the material mean that it also has potential in other areas including wear resistant materials and in applications requiring strength at high temperatures but which also need to cope with sudden temperature changes (thermal shock).

Dr Jones has been awarded a coveted Royal Society Industrial Fellowship, which enables him to divide his time between the University and XeraCarb, developing the materials and products further.

Winner of the 2011 Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers Venture Prize – for the most promising development in materials science

The impact

Drs Jones and Pick won a prestigious national competition in 2011/12 awarded by the Worshipful Company of Armourers and Braziers, and used the prize money to establish XeraCarb Ltd.

The company has to date received £650,000 of funding from Finance Yorkshire and independent investors. Full scale production facilities including a large production kiln were set up in Barnsley, South Yorkshire and by 2013 the company employed five people.

Progress has been achieved in three market areas

  • Kiln furniture – XeraCarb’s materials have good strength at high temperatures and are resistant to thermal shock making them well-suited to kiln furniture, used in the manufacture of porcelain and other household ceramics. Trials are being conducted at a number of the UK’s leading porcelain manufacturers
  • Armour – the materials are suitable for use in hard-plate armour applications such as bullet proof vests and vehicle armour – the MOD, other military establishments and armour systems suppliers in Europe are assessing the materials in ballistic scenarios. Recognising Xeracarb as an essential supplier for future UK armed forces capability, a two-year £280,000 contract has been awarded to develop high volume production using pressure-casting to make versions of the current UK armour system. A version of the ceramic suitable for protecting vehicles against large calibre threats is also underway with MOD funding
  • Abrasion resistant components – potential products include nozzles and pipes for abrasive materials handling. Sales have been made to UK manufacturers and trials are being conducted with end users from the UK and USA. A project worth £175,000 with the Technology Strategy Board has been secured to develop and test further improved materials

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