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Material world: Mons is a centre for high-tech new materials

20:00 24/12/2017
A unique business model centred on Mons is helping bring Wallonia’s materials expertise to a global audience

From energy-efficient glass for double-glazing to the red carpet at Cannes, materials science from Wallonia has already made its mark on the world. But there is more to come, as researchers and companies explore new ways of working together.

Wallonia’s expertise in high-tech new materials is centred on Mons. The city’s university is home to some of the best materials scientists in the world, such as Philippe Dubois, its professor of organic and macromolecular chemistry. When Thomson Reuters ranked the most influential researchers in the field between 2000 and 2010, Dubois was 18th on the list. Only two other Belgian researchers featured among the 100 names, both of them past or present staff at the University of Mons.

While building its academic reputation in materials science, the university also took steps to ensure that its research was put to good use. In 1995 it set up Materia Nova, a centre tasked with carrying out applied research and transferring new technologies to industry. It became independent from the university in 2001, but a close connection remains to this day, with combined research teams grouped around specialist facilities. “We still have this very strong link between the fundamental research done at the university and the applied research done at Materia Nova,” explains Luc Langer, the centre’s general manager.

“This is quite unique as a business model,” he goes on. “It has the advantage that our researchers are in permanent contact with the technology that we will probably have to develop for industry in a few years’ time. And, through our researchers, the university researchers can see the problems and requests that come from industry.”

Materia Nova specialises in two broad areas of material science. The first is surface treatment and the production of smart coatings for materials as diverse as glass, polymers, metals, wood and textiles. One example of this is a long collaboration with AGC Glass Europe, devising coatings that make glass more energy efficient.

The second area is polymers and composites, in particular biopolymers, materials which have their origin in nature. “The red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival is based on a biopolymer that was developed by Materia Nova and the University of Mons,” Langer explains.

Larger companies sometimes only need academic research from the university and Materia Nova, or for an idea to be tested in the laboratory. After that they are free to take the results back in-house for further development. However, they can also extend the partnership, working with Materia Nova on development and even industrialisation.

This last stage is carried out with two daughter companies: Nano4 in the field of nano-composites, and Ionics for surface treatment technologies.

When these two companies were set up, in 2011 and 2014 respectively, Materia Nova was a little concerned that industry might see them as potential competitors. The opposite turned out to be the case. “Once they knew we were involved in real industrial companies, we saw that the credibility of our research centre really increased,” Langer recalls.

AGC Glass Europe even went so far as to become a shareholder in Ionics, turning the company into a joint venture.

Small and medium-sized companies come to Materia Nova with slightly different problems. They are less likely to have longterm research strategies, but instead need help innovating to improve or develop their businesses.

“For smaller companies, if you want to make a real success you have to do much more than think: here is a technical, scientific problem that we have to solve. It’s about the business case in which you are involved, and that is a totally different job from doing research.”

For example, a small company approached Materia Nova to develop a better coating to use in its business. The researchers designed a successful coating, but the company was left wondering where to get a machine to apply it. There was nothing on the market, and no manufacturer would be interested in designing a machine for just one customer.

“So we identified other small companies, in very specific areas, where this coating could also have an advantage,” Langer says. Together they added up to a new market that a machine maker was happy to supply. This is an approach Materia Nova is keen to develop further. “What we try to do, more and more, is not only to use what we develop for one sector in another sector, but to bring them together to do the development together.”

One example of this ‘open innovation’ is WaliBeam, a consortium set up to develop a surface treatment technology based on ion beams. “With this technology you can have more scratch-resistant glass surfaces, you can have windscreen wipers which make less noise, you can reduce the thickness of metal coatings on electrical connectors, you can decrease the temperatures at which automotive catalysers work,” Langer says.

A company from each sector where there is a potential application has agreed to participate in the pre-industrial development of the technology. “The cost of the research is divided between the number of partners and we share the results,” Langer explains. “What one company is developing will be given to the others, and vice versa. We increase the speed of the development, we reduce the cost per company.”

A further project aims to help companies in the new materials sector emerge in Wallonia, by providing incubators that fit their needs. For example, the facilities must meet stringent standards to prevent water and air pollution, and to provide access to specialist equipment that would be prohibitively expensive for a start-up company.

“The intention is to build incubators specifically for materials science, and create a kind of ecosystem in Mons which includes the university, Materia Nova and other research centres,” Langer says. “We have a green light for the project from the government, and we are now discussing construction with the architects. I hope that within two years the incubators will be ready to welcome new companies.”

100-year-old tech for today

When Frédéric Danneaux and Jean-Patrick Holvoet decided to set up their own company, they turned to the past for ideas. What they found was an innovation from the early 1900s that had not reached its full potential.

At that time, fish oil was used as a lubricant in marine applications. It is cheap, water resistant and very stable. Unfortunately, it smells terrible, which is not great when the marine application is a submarine. With this problem in mind, a method was developed that uses a plasma – a gas made up of charged atomic particles – to remove the oil’s smell and also improve its lubricating properties. The technique was patented around 1909 and commercialised, but no one looked too closely at how it worked.

With the patents long expired, Danneaux and Holvoet were free to explore the method’s potential. “Our idea was to look at the concept with today’s technologies, and a better understanding of the chemistry,” says Danneaux. Initially they sought research partners in France and Germany, but were surprised to find an expert on their doorstep. “Materia Nova had competence not only in plasma technologies, but also in biotechnology and chemistry,” Danneaux explains. It also had a commercial mindset, which eased contacts with potential suppliers and customers.

Materia Nova carried out research on the physical and chemical aspects of the technique, then it worked on optimising the method for vegetable oils. The challenge now is for the start-up company, Green Frix, to scale up the process and bring some products to the market. Biological components for lubricants are one possibility. Another is ingredients for cosmetics, since the method both removes odour and improves oil stability. Finally there may be food applications, since the method hydrogenates oil without creating harmful trans fatty acids.

AGC Glass Europe

AGC Glass Europe is the European glass branch of the world’s leading glassmaker, AGC (Japan). It has a long relationship with Materia Nova. The results of this collaboration are clear to see – or see through – in many of its products.

“When you buy a window, its energy-saving properties are due to special coatings on the glass,” explains Lionel Ventelon, the company’s R&D consortium manager.

“The windows are transparent to the eye, but a mirror to the heat. And at AGC, these coatings and the equipment to produce them have been developed over the past twenty years with Materia Nova.”

The relationship has several advantages for AGC. “When you are working day-to-day to optimise standard products or process, it’s like being in a closed box,” Ventelon says, “and it is sometimes difficult to see things from another point of view. Working with Materia Nova gives us that.”

Materia Nova also helps when it comes to developing new technology, which during its early stages may be prohibitively expensive or risky for in-house development. In this situation, it can bring together companies from other sectors that might also find a use for the technology and develop it as a consortium, spreading the risk. An example is the recently launched WaliBeam industrial platform for ion implantation.

The close relationship also reassures AGC that this open innovation and similar partnerships will not compromise its commercial confidentiality. “With Materia Nova to manage those exchanges with other companies, we know that will help us to have a filter in terms of confidentiality.”

Ventelon adds that an ability to cooperate, developed thanks to the Marshall plan, is one of Wallonia’s strengths when it comes to materials science. “We are a small country, and we face plenty of challenges, but we know each other well. So when there is no competition, we are really aware of the value of collaborating and establishing consortia.”

Written by Ian Mundell