Waikato PhD student looking for breakthrough in titanium manufacturing

27 March 2014

Ben Jackson

Ground-breaking research: University of Waikato doctoral student Ben Jackson in front of TiDA’s Selective Laser Melting machine, which can produce innovative and intricately designed titanium products.

The sky’s the limit for a University of Waikato PhD student undertaking research into the manufacturing and advancement of titanium metal composites.

Ben Jackson, based at the Titanium Industry Development Association (TiDA) in Tauranga, is the first mechanical engineering doctoral student to study in the Bay of Plenty. He is researching whether he can create a new titanium composite material using selective laser melting (SLM) that will be stronger, lighter and more resistant to very high temperatures than titanium alone.

SLM manufacturing process

SLM is a manufacturing process of powder metallurgy, and uses laser technology to turn metal powder into solid 3-D shapes. The technology is able to develop products with intricate and innovative designs which cannot be made by machining processes.

Ben says because SLM is a relatively new manufacturing process there is still a lot of research to be done. He will take New Zealand’s titanium research a step further by exploring whether titanium ceramics – some of the planet’s very hard natural materials – can be manufactured using the SLM process.

“I’ll work with different combinations of elements to try and cause a reaction between the titanium and the other components of the powder during the SLM process. If it works, the resulting material should be lightweight, very hard and highly heat resistant,” he says.

Many titanium ceramics are already used in surface treatments on machined parts, however creating them through the SLM manufacturing process is a relatively new concept. If successful it will allow far more complex parts to be designed and will open up a much wider range of potential markets.

Aerospace, motorsport and energy

Ben is excited about the potential applications of his research, with his eyes set on the aerospace, motorsport and energy industries.

“I’m really interested in the applications of the final product, so if it works, the sky’s the limit on its potential use. If I got to say that there was a spaceship up there because of a part or material that I made, that would be great.”

Ground-breaking titanium manufacturing

Ben is undertaking his research at TiDA, which aims to help New Zealand companies develop ground-breaking titanium products for the international market. Titanium is gaining global notoriety because it is lightweight, corrosion resistant, non-magnetic and has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of all metals and TiDA is producing a range of products including medical devices, sports equipment, aircraft and marine components.

While studying towards his Bachelor of Engineering at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, Ben, a former Tauranga Boys College student, completed a summer work placement at TiDA in 2012. On completion of his degree, in which he graduated with first class honours, he was offered the opportunity to undertake a PhD through TiDA. Ben aims to complete his PhD research by December 2016.

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