New advances in the cold-spray application of metals, developed at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, significantly reduce the cost to repair and refurbish machinery. The Department of Defense plans to deploy the technology to repair military equipment in the field.
Dr. Christian Widener, director of the university’s Arbegast Materials Processing (AMP) Laboratory, said the technology was developed jointly by AMP and the Army Research Laboratory.
The process: Metals such as steel, aluminum or super alloys are made into a fine powder, then sprayed onto an existing surface from gun with a supersonic nozzle. The pressure is so great that the tiny particles deform and weld themselves to the substrate, without melting.
The new metal builds up on the surface — thicknesses can range from a few thousandths of an inch to as much as 2 inches — and has nearly as much strength as the original base metal. Cold spray technology can replace metals that have been lost to wear or corrosion on all types of mechanical equipment.
The process has already been used to repair hydraulic lines and skin panels on B-1B Bombers at Ellsworth Air Force Base. In fact, Widener sees legacy aircraft, planes out of production for decades, as a good candidate for cold spray technology. Instead of buying expensive and hard-to-find replacement parts, or retiring serviceable aircraft, the military could keep its fleet airworthy by refurbishing the existing parts.
One of the advances made at the School of Mines is the design of the nozzle used to spray the metal onto the surface. Its size and versatility make it possible to apply high-strength materials in very tight and difficult-to-reach areas. The School of Mines and the Army Research Laboratory have jointly applied for patents on the technology.
To transition the technology into a marketable product, Widener and business partner Robert Hrabe formed a company, VRC Metal Systems, to manufacture the equipment under license of the School of Mines and the Army. Located in the Black Hills Business Development Center's incubator on the campus of the School of Mines, VRC now has a staff of 15, including engineers, production workers and office staff.
Widener said this type of research and development creates real-world solutions that benefit the nation and the Black Hills economy. "These aren’t just arcane findings published in a research journal. These are real jobs, real parts and real savings for taxpayers,” Widener said.
In addition to licensing revenue, VRC’s commercialization will give the Arbegast Materials Processing Lab and the School of Mines the kind of industry clout that will win more research contracts.