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Revolutionary coatings technology

Summary

Research by Professors Ehiasarian and Hovsepian of our Materials and Engineering Research Institute (MERI) has advanced innovations in High Power Impulse Magnetron Sputtering (HIPIMS).

This is a ground-breaking technology used to pre-treat surfaces and deposit innovative coatings that significantly enhance the performance and properties of the treated material.

The technology has been applied in a wide range of industries, from components in jet turbines to replacement hip joints, and it has even allowed satellites to journey into deep space.

HIPIMS surface pre-treatment have achieved sales of over £20m, and licence income has totalled £800,000. In 2010 the joint Sheffield Hallam University-Fraunhofer IST HIPIMS Research Centre was established, the first such centre in the UK.

For some years we have been aware of the potential of this technology, but despite numerous attempts we were not able to implement a flight-worthy solution. Now Sheffield Hallam has developed an excellent coating suitable for a flight qualification programme.

Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

The research

HIPIMS is a plasma vapour deposition (PVD) method for surface treatment and coating. It enables the production of highly ionised vapour that is free of macro-particles. The vapour can be used to treat surfaces or to deposit specific coatings that enhance the properties and utility of a variety of end products with a wide range of industrial applications.

Research on the physics of plasmas initially determined a method for achieving dense hard HIPIMS coatings. Over a ten-year period research demonstrated that desirable wear-resistance and coverage properties could be achieved using combinations of electric and magnetic fields to manipulate plasmas of different source materials.

Upscaling the system allowed us to develop industrial applications for the HIPIMS method. This has included the development of coatings for auto and aero-engine components, technology for semiconductor wafer metallisation, cryogenic materials, coatings for biomedical implants and antibacterial coatings.

Impact

HIPIMS research has achieved economic impact in three ways

  • the roll-out of HIPIMS surface pre-treatment and coating methods through coating system manufacturers
  • direct collaboration with product manufacturers
  • discipline-leading activities associated with the Joint Sheffield Hallam-Fraunhofer IST HIPIMS Research Centre

A portfolio of patents has been developed to protect the IP in the HIPIMS innovations, and HIPIMS pre-treatment technology has been licensed to four leading PVD coating system manufacturers and coating technology has been licensed to major end-users - resulting in enhanced systems and components.

Licensed systems have generated £20m of sales to the manufacturers and £800,000 of licence income to the University. Typical applications include wear and oxidation-resistant coatings for automotive engine components, resulting in longer lifespans and higher operating temperatures, and special coatings for dry high-speed machining tools, which yield enormous improvements in cutting-tool lifetimes and machining speeds.

In 2006 a further patent application was made to protect bias power supply designs developed within industrial collaborators Hauzer Techno Coating and Huettinger Electronics. This technology was commercialised in 2010 and has resulted in power supply unit sales exceeding £1m to industrial partners.

Collaborative and licensed research has been delivered to a series of large manufacturers to enhance their products, including the development of coatings for automotive piston rings and metal-on-metal hip implants. In a joint project with Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, HIPIMS was also used to enhance the performance of cryo-coolers used in satellites. As a result the satellites were judged to be flight worthy and superior to competitor technologies.

The work was recognised by the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Europe's largest application-oriented research organisation, and our relationship was consolidated in 2010 when the Joint Sheffield Hallam University-Fraunhofer IST HIPIMS Research Centre was established with Professor Ehiasarian as its director.

The resultant critical mass of HIPIMS expertise encompasses the capability needed both to deliver large projects and also to support strategic industrial development programmes in the UK, Germany and worldwide. This has resulted in a large EPSRC-supported collaboration on high efficiency solar-cell glass panels with Pilkingtons (UK), Gencoa (UK) and Von Ardenne (Germany). The joint centre has also started to deliver HIPIMS expertise to other companies such as Biomet, Rolls Royce (aeroengines), Mahle Metal Leve, Kongsberg Maritime, IHI Hauzer, IHI Ionbond, Hüttinger Electronics, OC Oerlikon Systems, Systec.

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