Lotus Leaves Inspire NanoMech’s Tufftek

One of the potentials of nanotechnology is that when working at an atomic level, we can start to understand how various elements work together and can then alter them in order to create elements with superior properties. One place to look for innovative ideas as to what can be achieved with nanotechnology is in nature itself.  Biomimicry is a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. One company that has used the lotus leaf as an inspiration for their products is NanoMech.

Arkansas based NanoMech was founded in 2002 by the company’s Chief Technology Officer Dr. Ajay Malshe based on a coating technology pioneered by Dr. Malshe and exclusively licensed from the University of Arkansas. In 2008, Mr. James M. Phillips joined as Chairman and assembled a Board of Directors including Christopher Galvin, former Chairman and CEO of Motorola. An investment round followed shortly thereafter to fund the multiple award-winning TuffTek® NanoSpray coatings which deposit ultra-hard particles onto surfaces of cutting tools and are claimed to be the world’s most superior coatings for such uses. NanoMech has a 9000 sq. ft. manufacturing facility and an 8000 sq. ft. R&D facility, both located in Arkansas.

Cutting Tool Coatings

As the hardest known material, diamond has many unique physical properties that make it an ideal material for cutting tool applications. Diamonds are extremely abrasion resistant and have extremely high thermal conductivity which removes damaging heat from the cutting edge. Diamonds are of course, expensive. The “Holy Grail” of cutting tool coatings has been to use the second hardest material, cubic boron nitride (CBN), as a coating.  CBN provides outstanding thermal stability, high abrasive wear resistance, and can also be used for cutting ferrous alloys, where diamonds cannot. However, in the past, it has always proved a challenge to master CBN coatings for cutting applications. NanoMech has managed to use nanotechnology to create a patented CBN coating called Tufftek which is synthesized using a proprietary process and is expected to displace conventional vapor deposition processes. The coating application has a soft phase and a hard phase, both of which combine to form a nodular texture which mimics that of a lotus leaf:

Source: EPA
Source: EPA

Lotus leaves are known for having a very high water repellence (superhydrophobicity) resulting in self-cleaning properties. Tufftek mimics these properties and can improve cutting tool life by 300% when benchmarked against commonly used titanium aluminium nitride (TiAlN) coatings. There are environmental benefits as well which were outlined in a publication by the US Environmental Protection Agency. More than 100 million gallons of cutting fluid are used yearly in the US alone, all of which have to be disposed of as waste. Tufftek can potentially reduce this number. The application of Tufftek coating does not require polishing which not only reduces costs but also eliminates the use and disposal of chemicals. NanoMech is currently selling their Tufftek coatings to cutting tool manufacturers and users in the automotive and other manufacturing industries.

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