Going with the Grain
Nano-scale grain sizes are key to improving metal coatings on everything from baseball bats to nuclear reactors.
By Tyler Irving
How do you re-invent a classic technology? That’s the problem that Gino Palumbo faced in the early 1980s, as he worked to develop a better process for electroplating metals onto surfaces. His solution — which involved shrinking the metal grain size 1,000-fold — applied not only to the nuclear steam generators he worked on, but to dozens of other fields as well. Today Palumbo is president and CEO of Mississauga-based Integran Technologies Inc. The company holds over 250 patents and employs its unique electroplating processes in the manufacturing of everything from military hardware to sports equipment. ACCN spoke with Palumbo to learn how innovating the tiniest of parameters can make a big difference.
ACCN Do you consider Integran a nanotechnology company?
GP Yes, but I don’t usually use that term. When you talk about nanostructured materials, people generally start thinking about powders. There are no powders involved in what we do; instead we use electroplating and electroforming technologies to create materials with an ultrafine internal crystal structure.
ACCN How does this improve on traditional electroplating?
GP Inside a bulk metal, all the atoms are lined up in tiny crystals. Where the orientation of those atoms changes, you have what’s called the grain boundary. When metals deform, there are actually ripples in the material. It’s difficult for these ripples to move across grain boundaries, so the closer together those barriers are, the harder it is to deform the material. In conventional materials, the grain sizes are in the range of 10 to 30 micrometres; we reduce that down to 30 nanometres, and we can get a seven-fold increase in strength and in hardness.
There are other functional benefits: increased corrosion resistance, for example. We also see reduced friction coefficients for reasons we don’t yet completely understand. And since many of our materials are ferromagnetic in nature, we tend to see some interesting magnetic properties.
ACCN What was the breakthrough that enabled you to reduce the grain size?
GP In the 1980s, many other researchers were trying to reduce grain size by vaporizing metal, condensing it into tiny crystals, then re-compacting it into a fine structure. This involved very expensive equipment, which we didn’t have access to here in Canada. At the time, I was working at Ontario Hydro’s research division, in collaboration with Professor Uwe Erb, who was then at Queen’s University (he’s now at the University of Toronto). Together, we took a kind of chemical engineering approach, trying to get very fine crystals by modifying conventional electroplating processes.
When you first start electroplating, you cause the nucleation of crystals. If you use a direct current (DC) configuration, you’re just growing the crystals that you’ve already nucleated. But by pulsing the current, you can force nucleation to start anew with every pulse, which keeps the grain size very small. Combined with some changes in bath chemistry, the application of current pulse waveform technology made the difference. Ours was one of the first U.S. patents ever issued in the area of nanotechnology.
ACCN How did you apply the new technology?
GP The original application was to develop a repair technology for the steam generators inside nuclear reactors. We first put it into practice at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. We used robotics to send probes into the tubes, then pumped in solution and used the pulse deposition process to build up a layer on the inside of tubes that had been damaged. I understand that those tubes we treated many years ago are still in service and doing just fine.
ACCN How did this turn into a company?
GP Queen’s University has an excellent commercialization arm called PARTEQ. Ontario Hydro had contributed a lot of money and intellectual property to the development, and we also had the involvement of Babcock and Wilcox, a major manufacturer of boiler equipment. So at the project’s completion in the mid-1990s, there was a general interest in launching a company where all that intellectual property could be vested. Ontario Hydro, Babcock and Wilcox, and PARTEQ were the initial owners.
Right away, we began to get a lot of interest from the U.S. Department of Defense. They liked the idea of being able to replace hard chrome coatings, which are used in all kinds of applications where you need very good wear resistance.
ACCN Why did the military want to replace hard chrome?
GP Chromium is typically DC-plated from baths containing hexavalent chromium, which you might remember is the carcinogen that made Erin Brockovich famous. The U.S. Department of Defense wanted to get rid of it, but finding something with the same properties as hard chrome was a real challenge. In the end, they funded us to develop a new process based on cobalt. This process is typically run at an efficiency of more than 90 per cent, compared to 20 per cent for hard chrome.
Still, most of our effort went into working on components of nuclear plants. At that time, the nuclear industry started to go downhill, and if it wasn’t for those U.S. Department of Defense contracts we probably would have been in a lot of trouble. Our shareholders were in the nuclear business, and they weren’t as comfortable with this new direction. So in 2003, I orchestrated a management-employee buyout of Integran.
ACCN How has your focus changed since the buyout?
GP The hard chrome replacement is our flagship technology, and we’re still finding new applications for that every day. The rule of thumb is to look at where people will pay the most per pound of material: aerospace, defence and biomedical applications are ideal. But there are some surprises.
During the process of our management-employee buyout, we needed to talk to various groups about financing. One of the groups was a large Japanese trading company, and the president was an avid golfer. So we made a nanostructured metal driver head for him, as a gift. Afterward, he came to me and pointed out that in a driver, all the performance comes from the shaft: it’s all about bend, spring-back and minimizing the rotational distortion. So we began thinking about how to use our nano-metal for producing the best golf club available. The final result was a golf shaft that consists of our nano-metal coated onto a light carbon fibre composite. We’re now working on a new golf shaft which we hope to launch with a major sports equipment manufacturer in 2013.
ACCN What other applications are you into?
GP We do baseball bats, which are a nano-metal coating on an aluminum substrate, providing better dent resistance and performance. We’re also working on a next-generation bat that will have some interesting features. Unfortunately I can’t say much as we’ve been sworn to secrecy!
We also do a fair amount of work with golf manufacturers like PING, including a new putter, which again is a nanometal on an aluminum substrate. We actually created a spinoff company called Powermetal Corporation to market the sporting good applications, which we manufacture at a facility in Tijuana, Mexico.
ACCN How does the military use your technology?
GP In some cases we aren’t even allowed to know. We do know that they’ve been using a fair amount of our technology in magnetic shielding products. Previously, folks were doing magnetic shielding using rather expensive metal foil which had to be welded together. We realized that even if our stuff didn’t have better magnetic performance (which it actually does) the ability to electroform it right onto complex shapes allows for a fairly significant cost reduction. It’s now used for shielding of gyroscopes and other sensitive equipment.
On the structural side, there are the rocket launch tubes. They used to be steel but carbon fibre composite is much lighter. Carbon fibre alone won’t work, but it does if we put our nano-metal on the inside. We also have a program with the Canadian Department of National Defence, working on erosion coatings for helicopter blades.
ACCN Where are these products made?
GP There are five locations around the world that have site-licensed our technology, including military depots and our own manufacturing plant in Mexico. But we like to do the initial manufacturing here because long-distance trouble-shooting is very painful and costly.
We have about a 55,000 square-foot facility in Mississauga with about 50 employees, mostly scientists and engineers. The vast majority of them have a background in chemical engineering, particularly electrochemistry, along with a lot of metallurgists and materials scientists. We can do the development prototyping and initial low-volume production, then we transfer it to where the higher volume production can be done.
Bringing a new material to market can take more than ten years, but recently we’ve begun to see a lot of our stuff reach maturity and start generating revenue. That’s allowed us to re-invest in additional development and people; our staff has doubled from where it was five years ago. And we plan on doing more. We now have over 250 issued patents, and on a per-employee basis, I think we do extremely well. I think our revenues are going to increase very significantly over the next few years; I’d be surprised if it was anything less than 10-fold.
ACCN How did you fund yourselves in the early years?
GP We didn’t go through the normal venture capital route: we’ve always had revenues, and we’ve always operated within our means. On top of that, we have done extremely well at getting research and development support, primarily from U.S. government agencies like the Department of Defense. But we’ve also gotten excellent support from the Canadian government through the Scientific Research and Experimental Development tax credits, and the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) from the National Research Council. I think we’ve had about four or five IRAP programs over the past 12 years.
ACCN Is your technology competitively priced?
GP Our economics are virtually identical to that of conventional plating processes, but I think we bring a lot of additional value to the table. We’re competing with processes like machined aluminum and die-cast magnesium, and we’re competitive on both performance and cost.
ACCN What’s kept you motivated to keep working in this field?
GP I’ve had the good fortune to be surrounded by great people, many of whom I’ve been working with for over 25 years. At the end of the day I think it’s the people and the relationships that you develop that keep you motivated.
Want to share your thoughts on this article? Write to us at email@example.com