Back in the mid-1980s, Fisher Barton founder Richard Wilkey (BSMetE ’59) was looking for coatings to extend the life of the lawnmower blades his Wisconsin-based company manufactured. For help, he looked to Frank Worzala, then a professor of metallurgical and mineral engineering, and Worzala’s master’s student Bill Lenling (BSMetE ‘84, MSMetE ‘86), who was seeking research funding.
Ultimately, the project was so successful that Wilkey spun the coatings idea off as Thermal Spray Technologies, or TST. And, after initially working on thermal spray coating technologies at Sandia National Laboratories, Lenling joined TST and now is company president.
Thermal spray coating is a process in which particles of a material are sprayed onto a surface at high velocity, and the particles essentially melt and spread evenly across the surface. TST develops thermal-sprayed coatings—which, for example, improve wear, oxidation or corrosion resistance; electrical conduction or insulation, and biocompatibility—for products in such industries as aerospace, electronics, food processing, biomedical and energy.
While thermal-sprayed coatings are the company’s focus, UW-Madison has the facility and expertise that will enable TST to explore other options. “Cold spray does neat things other processes can’t do,” says Lenling. “Cold spray is more like friction welding of the particles on each other. So, you don’t have high-temperature reactions, and there are applications where that can be very important.”
UW-Madison is the only U.S. university with a high-pressure cold-spray system, which Engineering Physics Distinguished Research Professor Kumar Sridharan acquired through a U.S. Department of Defense instrumentation grant. One of a handful of U.S. cold spray coating experts, Sridharan and his students currently are using the system to conduct cold-spray research for the U.S. Navy and for accident-tolerant nuclear reactor claddings.
Now also—as Wilkey did more than two decades ago—Lenling and TST technology director Daryl Crawmer have turned to UW-Madison to explore cold-spray applications. They are collaborating with Sridharan on research that could help them decide if a foray into cold spray coating technology is a worthwhile pursuit for the company. With a UW System applied research grant, they’re studying the technique for increasing the durability and corrosion resistance of high-density electronics for the semiconductor industry. “This collaboration can help us figure out if we can make a business investment into the technology,” says Lenling. “It’s the kind of thing that will help us keep up with our competitors.”