PlasmaBound – forging stronger bonds
New bonding technology helps transport and infrastructure manufacturers to build stronger and lighter assemblies
Alan and Nick Barry with their PlasmaBound product at the 2017 UCD VentureLaunch Accelerator Programme. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Composite materials, such as carbon fibre, are found in everything these days from spacecraft and cars to tennis rackets and golf clubs. But while composites offer superior strength and lightness, they have one significant drawback – a potential weak spot where panels meet.
“The current way in which composites are joined for structural and load-bearing applications is unsatisfactory and limiting,” says Nick Barry whose company, PlasmaBound, has developed a step-change technology that creates a much stronger bond between composite materials than has been possible up to now and eliminates the need for metal fasteners.
“The incumbent technology is grit or sand-blasting which scours the surface of the composite with hard particles, indiscriminately removing material,” Barry says. “While this removes the polymeric layer, it is not as finely controlled as plasma ablation – which is the technology we have developed. Blasting also significantly damages the reinforcing fibre layer and structurally weakens it. Our technology (Controlled Plasma Ablation) removes a composite’s top layer of polymer resin to a pre-set, controlled and repeatable depth every time. This makes for a more complete bonding process due to the superior control over the final treated surface conditions.”
Nick Barry is an academic researcher with a background in surface engineering and a particular interest in bonding capability. Prior to setting up PlasmaBound he worked for the UCD-based Irish Centre for Composites Research. The company’s technology took five years to develop and the project has been supported by Enterprise Ireland under its commercialisation fund. Barry’s partner in the business and the company’s managing director is his brother, Alan Barry (also an engineer), who has 20 years’ experience in commercial manufacturing systems design and engineering services.
PlasmaBound is a spinout from UCD and the company is licensing the technology from the College. The company was formed in November 2017 and is currently based at Nova, UCD’s innovation hub. Its solution will be of particular interest to the global auto, transport, marine, adhesives, wind generation and aerospace industries and the company is targeting big names such as Ford, Audi and Hitachi Rail as potential customers.
The use of composites in advanced manufacturing industry is growing rapidly and from working at the Irish Centre for Composites Barry was aware of the trends emerging in the industry worldwide. “It became clear that while the use of composites was expanding, joining methods were becoming a critical issue and a limiting factor,” he says. “The current dominant method is metal binding or fastening but this has been shown to induce premature joint failures, so all the major users are actively seeking an alternative. In particular, we are seeing considerable interest in our technology from the rapidly growing adhesives sector.”
It has cost around €250,000 to develop PlasmaBound’s technology this far and Barry says discussions are now under way with potential investors to raise €600,000 to accelerate the commercialisation process. The company is also hoping to receive HPSU funding approval from Enterprise Ireland within the next few months. PlasmaBound has already successfully completed three on-site validation trials with more extensive industry testing beginning in the second quarter of this year.
The company’s first paying customer is expected to come on board shortly and the company will make its money from charging a technology licensing fee, a service agreement fee and from supplying the ablation machine. “We are creating a pricing plan at the moment and are in a strong position on this because our technology is seen as adding real value for our potential customers,” Barry says.
While its superior bonding ability will clearly be the biggest attraction for industrial customers, PlasmaBound has another ace to play. Its process is significantly more environmentally friendly than traditional grit blasting. By-products from the process break down naturally and do not leave manufacturers with the problem of contaminated grit and water waste to get rid of.