Scheme: Industry Fellowship
Organisation: Keronite International Ltd
Dates: Jul 2011-Oct 2013
Summary: “Mixing lightning with water to make the most of aluminium”:
My research involves a spectacular process that generates millions of microscopic
lightning bolts on the surface of a metal part, and uses this injection of energy to
improve the properties of the metal. Temperatures hotter than the surface of the
sun are achieved within a tank of cold water, and this can transform the surface of
aluminium into an extremely hard material like sapphire.
This process already has real applications ranging from F1 engine parts to aircraft
landing gear, and from high performance road cycle rims to scratch-resistant
mobile phone cases, but many of these have been developed through mere trial
and error, whilst the underlying science remains very limited.
Indeed, although the origins of this process can be traced back to the time of
Michael Faraday, and perhaps even Benjamin Franklin’s experiments (possibly
even powered by real lighting!), it only found industrial applications in the late 20th
century, and remains poorly understood. My research uses some of the modern
techniques use to study light emissions from stars and galaxies, coupled with data
processing capabilities only made possible with the latest generations of
computers, to explore the process in unprecedented detail, to explain the
mechanism, and ultimately to make it more efficient and more widely used.
This research has already resulted in several new product developments for UK
companies, and almost all of these involve manufacturing efficiency gains and
reduce energy consumption or waste by making machine parts last a lot longer.
For example, the aluminium parts used to make the humble paper coffee cup can
be made to last for years by using this process, whereas they used to need
replacing every few months.