The Science Cities Research Alliance has been engaged by a number of private companies working in the fields of Advanced Materials, Energy Futures and Translational Medicine. Dr Paul Lansdell, Operations Director at Hart Materials, shared his company’s experience of partnering with SCRA.
Tell us a little about Hart Materials Ltd
Hart Materials provides raw materials for companies operating nickel deposition processes, particularly those involved in electroforming products such as nickel masters used in the mass manufacture of holographic images. We also source and distribute particulate materials, typically nickel powders and nickel-coated graphite particles. These are used in high-technology applications such as radiofrequency and electromagnetic shielding of electronic equipment.
What was the project Warwick collaborated on? What was the catalyst for requesting Warwick’s expertise on the project?
We provide the electronics industry with nickel coated graphite, which is used to add the polymer compounds to electrical equipment, giving them electrical conductivity properties. These act as shields to stray radiation given off by circuit board components and solid state electronic chips. Without this shielding property it would be extremely difficult for modern electronic equipment to operate, as each item would interfere with anything close by. The properties of the nickel coated graphite are dictated by the particle size of the graphite, the thickness of the nickel coating and the completeness of the surface coverage of nickel over the graphite. These properties can only be seen by using a scanning electron microscope, and, as a four-person company, Hart Materials does not possess such an instrument. We were able to find one at Warwick.
Hart Materials were keen to demonstrate to the military and aircraft industries that any alternatives we could produce were as good as the existing supplier. This could not be done without the use of the equipment at Warwick University.
Why did Hart Materials choose to partner with Warwick? What expertise did Warwick offer?
We had supplied materials for one or two projects already being undertaken by staff at Warwick, and when we needed help, the first people we turned to were those whom we already knew; both their skills and the equipment available to them. This, combined with the willingness of the staff in Warwick’s knowledge transfer unit to help out finding ways of characterising the materials, made for a very successful partnership.
How did the partnership work?
Hart Materials supplied material for characterisation, and an overview of what information was required; Warwick provided the personnel and skills required for the use of the research equipment to characterise and identify the materials’ innate properties.
Were there any Warwick/Hart partnership R&D breakthroughs?
This particular project does represent a significant breakthrough in understanding the behaviour of nickel-coated graphite particles. The results were surprising and gave rise to a logical explanation as to why there are significant differences between the ways one manufacturer’s material behaves in comparison to the equivalent product from another source. Without Warwick’s help, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to explain these differences. Any analysis of the problem would have been conjectural rather than based on solid reliable scientific information.
How have the developments improved the product?
By identifying the replacement particles shortfall from the expected norm for material being sold into this market it was possible to go back to the alternative supplier and work with them to improve the properties of the materials they were offering into the marketplace. We are awaiting the outcome of the implementation of the identified improvements to show just how successful the implemented improvement plans have been.
What has the partnership with Warwick achieved for Hart Materials?
The ability to continue to supply this market with suitable materials to produce successful end products.
What can an academic partnership offer businesses?
It’s enabled a two-way conduit along which fact-based information and considered academic potentials can flow without either becoming a trip hazard for the other. This has encouraged better understanding by all parties of what is actually needed and what can be achieved by targeted research and development.
What’s next for the product in relation to the project on which Warwick partnered Hart Materials?
It is staggering that the behaviour of a material such as nickel-coated graphite that has been used in extremely demanding technological applications since the early 1990s is not properly understood by either the manufacturers or the end users of the material. As a result of this work carried out on behalf of Hart Materials Limited, it has been clearly demonstrated that the type of instrumental examination of nickel-coated graphite used at Warwick should be a vital, rather than a helpful, procedure used in the quality control systems.