Q&A on new and advanced materials

Materials World magazine
,
1 Mar 2017

Natalie Daniels speaks to Amanda Quadling about her career taking new materials from the manufacturing process to the end user.

Tell me about your background in the industry. 

As a geologist by training, my background is primarily in earth science. For more than a decade, I was involved in diamond exploration, carrying out extensive research into analytical methods for characterising prospect minerals. I went on to manage a heavy minerals laboratory for two different mining houses over a period of four years. Following this, I managed the Mineralogy Division at the South African Science Council (Mintek) – a combined commercial and research unit focused on ore beneficiation. After moving to the UK, I obtained a PhD in materials science and engineering, focusing on zirconia-based refractories. I was appointed head of Morgan’s Fibre Centre of Excellence in 2014 to head up its research efforts around driving developments in high temperature fibre. My experience as a geologist gave me a strong understanding of mineral phase evolution, critical to ceramic materials development, making for a viable and interesting career transition.  

What is the most exciting project you have been involved in? What are you currently working on?

We have spent the last two decades addressing fibre safety for use within an industrial environment. While we need to deliver something that is robust enough to meet the demands of industry, this cannot, in any way, compromise the wellbeing of those with whom it comes into contact. We are working to take low bio-persistent fibres into ever more challenging operating conditions, which is an ambitious and exciting goal to work towards. In an increasingly stringent and complex regulatory environment, materials scientists have to look at the development of platforms, processes and materials that are responsible with respect to both manufacturing and end users and in order to ensure full compliance with legislation. We are currently investigating a novel brick making process to reduce sulphur emissions. When you change one component within a material system you end up reconfiguring both the composition and process parameters of the system because these are inter-dependent – you iterate at a fairly empirical level to begin with but, as we search for more sophisticated materials, we need to understand the mechanisms beyond what we observe empirically. What this means is more fundamental science in the industrial environment. With this in mind, we have now started to collaborate more intensively with academics to incorporate a wider breadth of skill sets and expertise. 

The development of new materials is critical to improving the design process and because technological innovation is accelerating, we have to work at a similarly fast pace. We work in partnership with customers at a very early stage in the innovation process. There is a mutual interest between the company and the customer in regulatory compliance and a natural harmony to these relationships.

What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the materials sector?

The industry is becoming more aware of the impact of its materials, from the manufacturing process to the effects of contact with the end user. The rapid pace of change from a regulatory standpoint is driving further innovation and will continue to do so in the years to come. 

What are the main materials challenges? How can the industry cope with these?

The challenge will be allocating research resources and balancing research priorities to develop new materials and products for commercial growth, while ensuring materials substitution in compliance with ever tightening regulation. The two aims are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

In Europe, regulations such as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) are prompting industry-wide demand for new and safer materials and this allows greater opportunity for the development of new and advanced materials. 

In some industries in which Morgan has operated for a long time, products tend to have extended life cycles – decade-long installations in petrochemical and iron and steel are not unheard of. In other industries such as passive fire protection, we are seeing a significant reduction in development life cycles to cope with the rapid rate of innovation. For the materials industry, this means that we face more pressure than ever to deliver cutting-edge solutions within a shorter timescales. As a result, sectors like aerospace and automotive, which have seen their innovation trajectories accelerate quite considerably, have no alternative other than to forge close links with research groups at the forefront of materials science to develop new materials more quickly.

This pressing demand has given rise to increased collaboration between industry and Government. The UK has some exciting public-private partnerships emerging in large-scale research centres around automotive and biomedical industries.  

What thermal products do you work on? 

Our work focuses primarily on high-temperature aluminosilicate fibres for heat control and insulation. The centre has capabilities in both melt-based and solgel (i.e. chemical) routes to fibre manufacture. As a result of our research efforts, the centre is fully equipped with multiple pilot and scale-up rigs as well as an onsite analytical laboratory. Newly developed fibres must operate in tandem with other insulating and refractory materials, such as firebrick, castables and microporous products. The challenge for us is to work in partnership with other research units within the thermal products division to ensure an integrated solution for the end user.

You mentioned a pressing demand for innovation. Do you think there is enough of it coming through?

There is a general recognition that the materials science industry needs to be able to translate its outcomes to tangible manufacturing and commercialisation benefits. We have recently seen a shift in European funding priorities, with more support being provided to projects at a later stage of the technology readiness level chain. The future success of UK and European industry will be dependent on offering appropriate incentives to organisations, which produce outcomes that have an immediate commercial benefit. This is where partnerships between academic and commercial stakeholders offer huge potential. For us, academia and industry are crucial for materials science.

Amanda Quadling, Director of the Fibre Centre of Excellence at Morgan Advanced Materials, UK. After studying Geochemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, Amanda now works with a range of thermal products for high-temperature insulation.