Scientists take the grind out of producing one of the world's hardest materials known to mankind

Posted on Monday 12th May 2014
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A cheaper and more efficient way of processing one of the hardest materials on the planet could lead to the production of lighter, stronger and more hardwearing machinery.

Scientists at the University of Birmingham have developed a new method of producing boron carbide powder which uses lower temperatures and introduces fewer contaminants than current processing methods. Licensing partners are currently being sought by the University’s commercialisation arm, Alta Innovations, to commercialise the technology.

Boron carbide is important for many kinds of machinery used to make tools and other kinds of hard wearing equipment. Abrasive jets, for example, which are used to cut hard or heat sensitive material, need to be manufactured from hard materials to minimise wear. In addition, boron carbide is very effective at absorbing neutrons, which means it has potential for use in the nuclear industry to protect against radiation.

Currently, boron carbide is produced in the form of large ingots, produced by mixing petroleum coke – the carbon element of the compound – with boron oxide at temperatures of up to 2000 °C. These ingots then have to be ground into fine grains before being manufactured into the required shape. This method uses a lot of energy and time, making boron carbide products up to 10 times more expensive than other, less hard wearing ceramic materials which currently dominate the market.

Isaac Chang, of the School of Metallurgy and Materials at the University of Birmingham, has been working on a project, funded by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, to look at reducing the costs of producing the material.

His team has devised a method which substitutes a simple carbohydrate-based compound for the petroleum coke. The boron oxide and carbohydrate are mixed in water to form a solution which mixes the carbon and boron sources at a molecular level. The solution is then atomised into fine droplets which convert into a powder on cooling. When this powder is heated - at a temperature below 1500 °C - fine boron carbide particles are produced, ready for processing into final products.

“The raw materials we are using are very cheap,” explains Dr Chang. “They are also highly active ingredients, which means we can use much lower temperatures to produce the chemical reaction that we need, making the process less energy intensive. Also, because our end product is a powder, rather than an ingot, there is no need for grinding, which removes a costly and inefficient step from the process.”

Because boron carbide is one of the lightest materials on the market, relative to its strength, it is also very important in the development of new ceramic armours for the protection of dismounted soldiers as well as military vehicles and aircrafts against ballistic threats.

The team have just completed a series of tests to demonstrate how this process can be scaled up to produce larger yields and are now working further refine the process.

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About Alta Innovations

Alta Innovations Ltd is the University of Birmingham’s technology transfer company and is responsible for the commercialisation of research undertaken at the University. Alta Innovations links academic research with business through licensing and spinout activity, collaborative research and consultancy projects to generate the new ideas, technologies and processes required to achieve competitive advantage.

About Dstl

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (dstl) maximises the impact of science and technology (S&T) for the defence and security of the UK, supplying sensitive and specialist S&T services for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and wider government.

Dstl is a trading fund of the MOD, run along commercial lines. It is one of the principal government organisations dedicated to S&T in the defence and security field, with three main sites at Porton Down, near Salisbury, Portsdown West, near Portsmouth, and Fort Halstead, near Sevenoaks.

Dstl works with a wide range of partners and suppliers in industry, in academia and overseas. Around 60% of the Defence Science and Technology Programme is delivered by these external partners and suppliers.