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SurfTec Wins NSF Grant to Develop Nanoparticle Coating for Electric Motors

August 10th, 2016 by Rebecca Norman

Fayetteville’s SurfTec, LLC recently received notice of a $225,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation to develop and test a new nanoparticle composite coating to support greater wear life for electric motors.

Once commercial ready, the technology will be ideal for food-and-beverage processing plants as well as the pharmaceutical industry. The vision of SurfTec is to pioneer the development of innovative material surfaces based on nanotechnology.

Dr. Sam Beckford serves as CEO/President of SurfTec, LLC

Dr. Sam Beckford, CEO/president of SurfTec

SurfTec’s Background and Team

Dr. Sam Beckford serves as CEO and president of SurfTec and is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arkansas’ Nano Mechanics and Tribology Lab. Beckford received his master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and his PhD in the Micro Electronics and Photonics program.

“This latter program puts a great deal of emphasis on the commercialization of research into their curriculum,” said Beckford. “It provided me with the necessary base to transform my research findings into this small business called SurfTec that we have started.”

Beckford was also inspired to start his own businesses after receiving advice from local entrepreneurs such as Dr. Doug Hutchings of PicoSolar, Inc., and Dr. Corey Thompson of WattGlass, LLC. Dr. Min Zou serves as SurfTec’s chief technology officer and Cameron Crane is the company’s research engineer. SurfTec also has board members who function as advisors and provide business management support.

ASBTDC Assistance

Beckford became a client of the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center in February 2015. He attended an ASBTDC-hosted SBIR/STTR Phase I Proposal Writing workshop and participated in the center’s live webinars featuring speakers from the National Science Foundation’s SBIR/STTR program.

“The SBIR/STTR Phase I Proposal Writing workshops and live webinars offered by the ASBTDC were very instrumental in preparing us to write a strong SBIR proposal,” Beckford noted. “It was especially helpful to be able to hear from government agency SBIR proposal reviewers and entrepreneurs who had good advice on what constituted a strong proposal.”

Beckford added that market research reports provided by ASBTDC allowed the team to identify and single out a beachhead market that could represent early revenues for SurfTec. “Access to reputable industry reports, such as the ones provided by ASBTDC, are typically very costly, and we were very grateful to be able to receive these free of charge and in a timely fashion,” he said.

“The market research service provided by ASBTDC was extremely valuable to us. We were able to use this information to identify the market size and growth rate of the targeted protective coating industry as a whole and identify potential customers in industry leaders.”

The CEO credited the center for helping SurfTec complete its NSF proposal. “The biggest challenge for us as engineers and scientists was putting together a business plan and market research,” he said. “However, having access to the ASBTDC was helpful in this aspect.”

Current Challenges in Electrical Equipment Maintenance

Losses resulting from equipment down time and maintenance due to poor lubrication across all U.S. industries are as high as 6% of the GDP, a total of $1 trillion for 2014. Food and pharmaceutical processing plants, in particular, suffer from high maintenance costs due to lubricant deterioration and corrosion of mechanical components triggered by caustic cleaning solutions used during equipment wash down.

SurfTec’s Proposed Solution

Replacing traditional oils and greases in bearing assemblies with solid lubricant coatings can significantly reduce sensitivity to moisture and protect against corrosion. Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), specifically, has drawn a great deal of interest because of its self-lubricating properties, hydrophobicity, and high temperature and chemical resistance. Beckford notes that the use of PTFE is limited due to its high wear rate.

Enabled by an adhesive polymer basecoat and a nanoparticle filler within the PTFE matrix, SurfTec has developed a PTFE composite coating with a wear life 2,000 times greater than virgin PTFE while preserving its desirable properties. The low rate of water absorption, chemical resistance and durability of SurfTec’s coating make it an ideal candidate for wash down applications.

NSF SBIR Phase I Project

“The objective of this project is to demonstrate a 50% increase in the service life of wash down duty electric motors,” said Beckford. “This will be accomplished by coating sealed-for-life bearings used in wash down duty motors and comparing the bearing life and load/speed rating to bearings using current lubrication methods.”

Commercial Vision

SurfTec envisions its coating technology selling globally and becoming the standard lubricant used in bearings for heavy-wash-down applications. “The maintenance and lubrication cost savings resulting from the implementation of ‘lubed-for-life’ bearings in this niche market will serve as an excellent case study,” said Beckford. “We will leverage this study to expand the applications of our solid lubricant coating into additional industries and market segments beyond wash down duty electric motors.”

Advice for Potential SBIR Applicant Companies

“Have a conversation with local entrepreneurs who have been through the process before,” Beckford recommends. “Their insight is invaluable, and we have a growing number of SBIR recipients in the state that are always willing to give you feedback.”

SurfTec NSF SBIR Award Abstract