Metals smart enough to save gas

Imagine engines that conserve fuel by automatically dialing down internal friction, water pipes that self-seal cracks and iPhones that protect themselves when dropped. Metallurgist and Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Pradeep Rohatgi has – and he invented materials to build these smart products.

For 40 years, Rohatgi has been creating metal matrix composites, which combine standard metal alloys with different classes of material – ceramics, nanoparticles, recycled waste – to give them “smart” qualities.

Pradeep Rohatgi, Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering

Pradeep Rohatgi, Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering

But Rohatgi’s creations largely sat on the shelf for decades. Now, a flourishing entrepreneurial culture at UW-Milwaukee, the right partners and a national push for conservation and energy independence convinced him to enter the commercial sphere. He’s doing so with a product line made using a self-lubricating composite, one he believes will cut friction in internal combustion engines significantly, saving gas while reducing emissions.

“Federal mandates to reduce carbon emissions and increase fuel efficiency could help propel these composites into the marketplace,” said engineering alumnus Chris Jordan, who worked in Rohatgi’s lab as an undergraduate. Jordan and lab mate Simon Beno joined Rohatgi and two of his collaborators in a startup company, Intelligent Composites, which aims for car parts to be manufactured using the composite.

If successful, the startup’s product line could reinvigorate Wisconsin foundries.

A career in composites

Rohatgi pioneered metal matrix composite development in the 1970s while working for the International Nickel Company’s U.S. lab. An official at General Motors suggested the lab develop a lightweight alternative to cast iron to reduce a vehicle’s weight and shipping costs.

David Weiss (left) and Simon Beno oversee production of a metal composite at Eck Industries in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The foundry will supply their startup, Intelligent Composites. (UWM Photo/Troye Fox)

David Weiss (left) and Simon Beno oversee production of a metal composite at Eck Industries in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The foundry will supply their startup, Intelligent Composites. (UWM Photo/Troye Fox)

But in an era of cheap gas, the composites were too complicated and costly to mass-produce, and automakers balked, Rohatgi recalled.

He persevered, believing the materials could improve lives and provide jobs.

“These composites can give old-line manufacturing the means to produce new, high-tech products,” he said.

Rohatgi and longtime collaborator David Weiss spent years testing composites with various smart qualities at Manitowoc’s Eck Industries, where Weiss is vice president of engineering. They resolved compatibility issues and devised a method to mass-produce composites in foundries, bringing down the cost.

Metal matrix composites have been the exclusive property of labs that custom-make them for projects like the Hubble spacecraft. Now, Eck will prove they can be used to produce the engine part Intelligent Composites will sell.

“What had been missing was a business that could take the materials into production and sell them,” said Weiss, who is also acting CEO for Intelligent Composites.

Proven potential

Jordan was already a successful entrepreneur when, as an undergraduate, he took a part-time job in Rohatgi’s lab, just as the professor entered the self-lubricating composite in the Governor’s Business Plan competition.

Jordan soon envisioned a profitable startup, and enlisted James Hunter, a Lubar School of Business entrepreneur-in-residence, to become the startup’s chief financial officer.

Promising early test results helped Intelligent Composites attract more than $350,000 in grant funding during its first 15 months.

According to the team’s market research, engine and vehicle manufacturers facing stricter federal emissions regulations would take notice of a cost-competitive method of reducing fuel consumption and emissions by 1 or 2 percent.

Plus, independent testing of prototypes reported a 35 percent reduction in fuel consumption compared to rotary engines made of traditional materials.

Jordan and Beno hope to see similar benefits when the composite reduces friction between pistons and cylinders in internal combustion engines. Piston engines are used in most cars and trucks, so the impact could be dramatic.

“If every car and truck in the country used Intelligent Composites cylinder liners, the United States could become energy independent,” Beno said.

His claim is supported by years of testing Rohatgi and Weiss did with manufacturing giants Ford, Briggs & Stratton and Oshkosh Corp. before Intelligent Composites formed.

Robert Hathaway, a UW-Milwaukee alumnus and vice president of Global Technology – Materials and Process Engineering at Oshkosh Corp., has collaborated on research projects with Rohatgi for two decades.

“We believe these materials have commercial merit,” Hathaway wrote in a letter supporting the startup’s application for a Small Business Technology Transfer grant. “Should Intelligent Composites achieve the goals outlined in the federal grant application, Oshkosh Corporation would be interested in giving this technology a closer look.”

A dual sales approach

While testing continues, the team is executing a plan to break into the market.

Weiss is introducing the composite parts to original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs. These companies, like the major automakers, outsource production of parts used in their final product and can influence others.

“These are disruptive materials that call for the suppliers to change manufacturing processes,” Weiss said. Now that’s innovation!

Grateful for the university’s support, the Intelligent Composites team granted 1 percent equity in the startup to the UWM Research Foundation.