A Seattle-based startup that developed the process, Modumetal, is commercializing it in part with collaboration with oil company giants Chevron, Conoco-Philips, and Hess.
Modumetal is a nanolaminated alloy that is stronger and lighter than steel and can replace conventional metals and composites in applications. It is also a production process that allows users to “grow” parts and represents a market opportunity in parts manufacturing.
Parts made using the technology are undergoing tests in oil fields now. Some oil contains highly corrosive chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide that quickly damage production equipment. The new technology could make those parts last much longer and thus lower the cost of pursuing unconventional sources of oil. That could be just the first of a wide range of applications.
The advance ends up based on the idea that controlling the structure of metals at the nanoscale can imbue those materials with new properties. This has been possible for some time, but it’s been difficult to do reliably and economically with large pieces of metal. Modumetal developed a process that gives it precise control over the structure of metals, and which allows it to make parts that are meters long. Christina Lomasney, Modumetal chief executive, said the process costs the same as conventional metal treatments such as galvanization.
Modumetal uses an advanced form of electroplating, a process used to make the chrome plating you might see on the engine and exhaust pipes of a motorcycle. Electroplating involves immersing a metal part in a chemical bath containing various metal ions, and then applying an electrical current to cause those ions to form a metal coating.
The company uses a bath that contains more than one kind of metal ion and controls how ions end up deposited by varying the electrical current. By changing the current at precise moments, it can create a layered structure, with each layer being several nanometers thick and of different composition. The final coating can be up to a centimeter thick and can greatly change the properties of the original material.
Modumetal is ramping up its production capacity at its factory in Snohomish County, Washington. The company’s claims cost savings, however, they have note have yet produced at a large scale to prove those numbers. In addition, before the materials can see use usage, standards bodies will need to develop tests to ensure their performance.