Surface Transforms (www.surface-transforms.com; Ellesmere Port, Cheshire) is one of the UK’s leading manufacturers of ‘next-generation’ carbon fiber reinforced ceramic composite materials (CRFCs). They are designed to replace traditional carbon-carbon products on aircraft by offering an improved product lifetime, thereby increasing the number of landings that can be performed between maintenance schedules. Its products can be found on rocket propulsion systems and as a replacement for conventional technical ceramics for use in body and vehicle armor. They can also be found on high-performance cars. Formed in 1992, Surface Transforms originated out of the Advanced Materials group of ICI when four former employees bought the intellectual property rights to the materials technology. Initially, and for quite a lengthy period of time afterwards, it served as a research and development company. Initial projects were funded programs that looked at various applications including aerospace and railway carriage braking. It even started to become involved in Formula One. However, the timing was unfortunate because the company initiated the project just at the time when the FIA, the sport’s governing body, was in the process of banning carbon ceramics on Grand Prix cars. Surface Transforms duly refocused its efforts on fitting its brakes to high-performance road cars.
As a result, Surface Transform’s System ST brakes can now be found on the Koenigsegg supercar as an option on the CCX, which was launched at last year’s Geneva Show and on the CCGT that was launched at this year’s show, the $600,00 Ascari A10, and a new supercar from Weber Sportcars. Altogether, System ST is now fitted to more than 15 different car platforms. Surface Transforms is also working in partnership with StopTech, a California based leader in balanced brake upgrades for production cars and production-based racecars, to promote the adoption of carbon ceramic brakes on high-performance cars in the U.S. market. An annual supply contract has not yet been signed, yet both companies forecast that in the aftermarket between 50 and 100 car sets will be required in the next 12 months. StopTech has placed the first production order and will soon be offering the System ST ceramic brake disc on selected vehicle offerings.
“Carbon ceramic brake technology was really brought to the market by three cars that were launched, utilizing the technology at a similar time—the Ferrari Enzo, Porsche Carrera GT and the Mercedes McLaren SLR—and Surface Transforms had the appropriate technology,” says Antoni Sznerch, Surface Transforms’ business development director. Unlike carbon-carbon brakes, carbon ceramics do not need to be hot to work, they work optimally from cold while offering significant weight saving over traditional iron rotors. They also have negligible wear in normal use. “The fundamental difference between the brake discs that are fitted to these three cars and Surface Transform’s technology is that they are manufactured using discontinuous carbon fiber, where our discs are made of continuous carbon fiber. This means that their mechanical integrity should be superior because the strength of carbon lies in the direction and length of the fiber.”
Surface Transforms manufactures and supplies 3D multi-directional carbon fiber and oxidized PAN (polyacrylonitrile) preforms to suit a variety of engineering applications. Carbon fiber preforms are mats of interwoven multi-directional carbon fibers and are the basic materials that Surface Transforms converts into ceramic brakes and discs using its patented technology. “By developing our discs and pads from our pad partner, we provide a balanced and high-performance complete friction couple,” says Sznerch. “We use what could be called a traditional nought/90 fiber orientation. However, our raw material is carbon fiber precursor which has 30% elongation in the fiber before it will break whereas carbon fiber only has 2%. This 30% elongation allows us to needle the fibers together so that we not only have the nought/90 orientation but also have the fiber in the Z direction through the material bundle and that is what binds the fibers together. It would be physically impossible to do this with traditional carbon and can only be done at the precursor stage. We convert the precursor to carbon fiber then we crack methane and convert the carbon to carbon-carbon.
“The final stage of manufacture is to convert the carbon-carbon to carbon silicon carbide. The carbon that we crack from methane infills around the fiber that is then converted to silicon carbide. In this way we end up with a carbon silicon carbide disc with good mechanical integrity. Because we machine our discs to shape as opposed to shaping them in a mould we have great flexibility in the design and dimensions of the disc.”
“We are now going through the phase of transforming an R&D company into a more commercial manufacturing one,” says Sznerch. “We are a materials technology company looking for commercial applications. The company philosophy and strategy is twofold. One is that we don’t see ourselves as a large volume manufacturer of automotive brake discs and are looking for licensed manufacturers for the long term. Aircraft brakes, currently, in the main are carbon-carbon—metal brakes are now less common on new aircraft—and we are looking to license our technology to carbon-carbon manufacturers. This has a good strategic fit because our siliconization process can be added onto the tail end of their existing process. A licensed automotive manufacturer will be a little bit different because it would need a more complete manufacturing package. However, we have intellectual property rights for the main core of three critical processes, starting with the raw material, how it’s put together, then the carbonization stage followed by the siliconization process.”
The company’s research capabilities are recognized by the UK government with the announcement in March that it had won a multi-million dollar grant as the lead company and project coordinator in a collaborative R&D program to develop new technology and products allowing innovative recycling of carbon waste. The levels of waste carbon fiber are increasing rapidly on a global scale as a result of increasing carbon fiber material usage in the design of civil engineering industrial structures, aircraft, and automobiles. The project is designed to have an improved economic and environmental impact on the use of friction materials in transport through the innovative recycling of waste carbon and its conversion into more cost-effective carbon friction products which can have very positive financial and environmental benefits especially for the car industry.