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UConn wins $3.5 million Naval Research contract

UConn has been chosen over 40 other applicants for a $3.5 million contract by the Office of Naval Research.

"The key to our being awarded this significant contract," says Mark Emmert, chancellor and provost for university affairs, "was the cross-departmental excellence of the faculty team which will undertake the project. This collaboration will benefit the University, the Navy and the nation."

UConn will be funded during the next four-and-a-half years to develop the science and technology of nano-structure coatings for naval ship repairs.

"What so frequently happens in research," says Maurice Gell, a professor-in-residence of metallurgy who is the program manager of the nanostructure project, "is that people come up with an idea but there is no market for it. There are some good inventions, but basically there is nowhere for them to go. Up until now, that has been the case with these nanostructure materials and coatings, but that is going to change, because the Navy is going to provide the market for these materials."

That's because the Navy wants the nanostructured materials to replace the coatings it is using on its ships and aircraft.

Nanostructural materials have grains 100 to 1,000 times smaller than conventional materials. And this refined microstructure is responsible for the unique properties of nano-structures, including improved hardness and toughness.

"The Department of Defense and Navy budgets have been reduced significantly," Gell says. "Years ago, ships used to come in for repairs every two to three years, but now the Navy would like it to be every 10 years."

It costs the Navy nearly $300,000 a day to keep a ship in dry dock, adds David Reisner, chief executive officer and president of Inframat in North Haven, which has a worldwide exclusive license agreement with the University to commercialize the nanostructured technology, including coatings.

Gell says that because the U.S. maintenance budget for ships and aircraft has gone way down, "Ships must stay at sea for longer intervals, which means the coatings on their components must last longer."

The UConn/Inframat team will develop nanostructured ceramic coatings to protect components like pumps, shafts and valves from wear and erosion. The team also intends to create a coating to protect components located on diesel and gas turbine engines from heat exposure.

The beauty of this, says Gell, is that the Navy will be able to continue using the same equipment - thermal spray guns - to apply the new coating.

"To make our research work," he says, "we have to define the thermal spray conditions that are required to produce nanostructured coatings and to ensure that these coatings maintain their structure and strength."

The only way the project could be done, says Eric Jordan, a professor of mechanical engineering who is working on the project, was to forge an interdisciplinary team that included Theodore Bergman and Baki Cetegen of mechanical engineering, Paul Klemens and Douglas Pease of physics, and Nitin Padture and Leon Shaw of metallurgy and materials engineering: "If UConn did not have a team of first-rate players, we could have never won this contract," Jordan says.

Reisner adds that one of the reasons Inframat created a strategic alliance with the university was that "we are able to maximize its assets, its library resources and a community of professors."

He believes the contract will increase UConn's and Inframat's involvement in developing a variety of nanostructured materials to improve the performance of coatings and to extend the life of a wide variety of components.

Inframat is leasing laboratory space from the University, where the company will work together with UConn faculty to develop and demonstrate the thermal spray conditions necessary to make nanostructured coatings. Other industry partners associated with the program include international coating suppliers Praxair and Howmet Corporations, and gas turbine engine suppliers Allison Engines, General Electric and Solar Turbines.

"I can foresee the automobile, commercial gas turbine engine, the tooling industry - and any devices that have moving parts that wear - using this product," adds Peter Strutt, a professor emeritus of metallurgy, who is one of the co-founders of Inframat.

Luis Mocete