Lightweight ceramic technology gets heavyweight investment

Published 12th December 2012 at 2:55pm

A spin-out business called XeraCarb created by Sheffield Hallam University to commercialise novel high performance and low cost ceramic materials is benefitting from significant new investment to take its technology into production.

XeraCarb, created by a Sheffield Hallam material scientist and a Barnsley ceramics expert in August last year, will use the six-figure investment to set up premises and buy specialist equipment to produce its lightweight composite ceramic material on a commercial scale.

The company received the investment from Finance Yorkshire’s seedcorn fund and will base its business in South Yorkshire, aiming to take orders in the next 12 months.

The innovative ceramic composite materials combine the best properties of a number of ceramic systems including silicon carbide, silicon nitride and alumina, making the materials lightweight but with class leading properties.

The novel materials can be used for a wide range of applications including porcelain manufacture automotive parts, minerals handling equipment, incinerators and power generation facilities and even personal body armour.

Initially the company will focus on the kiln furniture market, manufacturing specialist products for the ceramics manufacturing industry.

XeraCarb will also start a programme of advanced testing and validation of its ceramic armour which could be used to protect troops, security personnel and equipment against ballistic threats.

The Ministry of Defence supported the development of the technology in its early stages through its Centre for Defence Enterprise and Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and the innovation was awarded the Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers Venture Prize of £25,000 in 2011.

Sheffield Hallam’s Research and Innovation Office, which nurtures new businesses by linking academia with industry have been heavily involved in securing investment at all stages of XeraCarb’s development.

Dr Chris Wright, chief executive of XeraCarb, said: “I’m delighted XeraCarb has received such impressive financial backing and can now put its proven technology into production. There has been a lot of commercial interest in our materials and we can now start to support our customers with materials designed to their specifications.

Dr Hywel Jones from Sheffield Hallam’s Materials and Engineering Research Institute (MERI) is the chief scientific officer at XeraCarb.. He said: “To see a process that we began in the labs at Sheffield Hallam become a business in its own right is truly gratifying and vindicates the hard work and good science that has taken place. While XeraCarb will now focus on commercial opportunities we will continue to innovate, with the support of Ministry of Defence and other partners, to open up new applications for the technology such as wear-resistant parts and components resistant to high temperatures.”

Robert Evans, technology transfer manager at Sheffield Hallam, added: “We help businesses to thrive in a number of ways, and this spin-out shows that true collaboration can also take place at Sheffield Hallam. The University has proven that it can take promising research from its laboratories and ensure that it has real benefit to the regional and UK economy.”

Dr Anthony Pick, chief technical officer at XeraCarb, devised the early prototype of the new ceramic. He said: “I started the development of the product in my garage six years ago. By teaming up with the university we have been able to develop a new, functional material, which can be manufactured in a range of complex shapes and in large sizes, and, whilst lightweight, retains an impressive hardness and strength.”

Ashwin Kumaraswamy, Investment Manager at Finance Yorkshire, said: “A real bonus for the material is that the team is confident parts can be made using a low-cost and highly flexible manufacturing technique. We therefore see XeraCarb as an exciting new start-up business which has huge potential for growth.”