COP26: artificial intelligence-driven ceramic coatings for greener aviation
Everything around us is coated with something. These coatings deliver a critical function for components. The simplest form of coating that we can see around us is paint. Our walls are painted to protect from mould, and our furniture is painted to protect from surface damage and rust. Even the computer screen, tablet or mobile phone you are using to read this is coated with a thin layer to make these function.
Similarly, in a plane engine (the large round item hanging under the plane wing which takes you on a holiday), almost everything is coated. These coatings, as thin as my hair (one tenth of a millimetre), are critical in taking you from one place to the other. This thin layer allows the blades in the engine (more specifically high-pressure turbine blades) to operate at extremely high temperatures - equivalent to taking an ice cube out of the freezer, putting it in your oven, cranking the heat up to 200 °C and expecting the ice cube not to melt. A thin white coating, known as a thermal barrier coating, allows the blade (made out of nickel-based superalloys) to operate under such extreme conditions.
According to current figures, flights produce 915 million tonnes of CO2 worldwide and aviation is responsible for 12% of CO2 emissions from all transport sectors. The International Civil Aviation Organisation has aspirational goals for reducing the climate impact of global aviation by improving fuel efficiency by two percent annually by 2050. Advanced ceramic coatings with bespoke functionalities are essential for this ambitious goal and any future electrification of aerospace propulsion. For reference, a 1% increase in engine efficiency (in a 300 megawatt engine) will lead to 25,000 tonnes/year reduction in CO2 emission and roughly save $2m a year on fuel costs. Using advanced coating technologies, we can achieve these goals.
My five-year, £2.1m fellowship, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will drive the discovery new modelling and processing techniques, which will overhaul the design and manufacture of advanced ceramic materials for the next generation of air and space travel.
Using artificial intelligence and advanced chemistry, the university’s Coatings and Surface Engineering team will influence the molecular architecture of ceramic materials to tailor their properties and make them more durable and sustainable. We aim to produce bespoke ceramic coatings designed and manufactured with thermal, electrical and environmental barrier properties that can be fine-tuned to applications in aerospace. Our research will lead to the creation of coatings for the aerospace industry with improved properties, performances and reduced materials processing times. These novel coatings can be manufactured in large volumes at a fraction of the cost of today’s methods, which will further encourage uptake by the aviation industry.
"Ceramic coatings are not only essential for our current generation of aeroplane engines, but are critical for the next generation of engines."
Ceramic coatings are not only essential for our current generation of aeroplane engines, but are critical for the next generation of engines using ceramic matrix composites or even electric motors and fuel cells. These ceramic coatings are deposited using a plasma (ionised gas) spray technique. The university has established a Centre of Excellence in Ceramic Coatings, where the UK’s only Suspension Plasma Spray (SPS) facility can sustainably produce ceramic coatings with significantly improved performance over their lifetime. These long-lasting ceramic coatings allow plane engines to operate at higher efficiencies and reduce CO2 emissions by thousands of tonnes a year.
"These long-lasting ceramic coatings allow plane engines to operate at higher efficiencies and reduce CO2 emissions by thousands of tonnes a year."