By Eric Peterson | Feb 24, 2015
Principal Scientist and CEO Andras Korenyi-Both makes cutting-edge coatings for satellites and other spacecraft as well as most anything else that needs to withstand an extreme environment.
After working for NASA and the private sector, Korenyi-Both went to work as a contract research scientist for the Air Force and developed i-Kote, a coating that was perfect for outer space.
"Essentially, it's a smart coating that has the ability to adapt to its environment," he explains. "What works on a terrestrial environment does not work in space."
In the vacuum of space, any moving components can fuse together if they're not lubricated to a very low friction coefficient. i-Kote was tested on the International Space Station in 2005 and came out as by far the best coating for the job. "i-Kote has the world record for the lowest friction coefficient ever measured in space."
Korenyi-Both describes i-Kote as a "chameleon coating" with a nanocomposite that shifts in extreme environments. Vacuum, temperature, or speed can trigger the shift. It also needs to be extremely durable. "Launch is brutal," he says. "This prevents massive failures in all moving equipment."
The Air Force owns the patent on the intellectual property, and Tribologix has an exclusive license to commercialize it through an technology transfer agreement. When Korenyi-Both launched the company, he was up for a staff position with the Air Force. "I had to decide between a cushy government job and this, and obviously I chose this," he says.
Customers include jet engine manufacturers like GE and Rolls-Royce, bearing kingpin Timken, and several federal agencies on "mission-critical" equipment and infrastructure. "Most of our customers are building satellites and other spacecraft," says Korenyi-Both.
Tribologix also serves the motorsports, automotive, and energy industries and does some Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) work. It's currently working to develop a drogue -- or "refueling pod" for aircraft at sea.
Named for tribology -- the science of interacting surfaces in relative motion -- the company balances i-Kote and research with contract work. "We're a job shop in the sense that parts come in, we put on a coating, test friction and wear, and ship them out," Korenyi-Both explains. "We have the machines that make the real thin-film hard coatings. These coatings are less than a hair's width thick." Tribologix vaporizes titanium and other metals for these applications and coats parts by means of plating, electron beam deposition, and other methods.
Korenyi-Both moved Tribologix to Golden in 2012 when his son started at Colorado School of Mines. (Korenyi-Both is also now on the faculty, but it was ultimately his wife's decision to move from Ohio. "She just fell in love with Colorado, which is a bonus for me," he says. "We have a tremendous amount of business we've picked up along the Front Range, and not just in aerospace."
He says Tribologix will hire new technicians in the short term and grow production in Golden in the longer term. "We are really poised to grow this year," he says. "With that will come some jobs."
Challenges: Beyond being in a niche market, "We've had to be really patient," says Korenyi-Both. "To test and validate the coatings takes a long time." Some aerospace companies have needed five or more years of testing to place an order.
The custom nature of the work represents another challenge, he adds. "No job is really easy. Every job is special."
Opportunities: A $118,000 Advanced Industries grant for Mines will allow the company to partner with the school to commercialize a coating invented by a retired professor: a nano-scale "super-lattice" with crystallography. "You can arrange the atoms any way you want," says Korenyi-Both, anticipating adding 10 jobs to handle production after commercialization in two or three years. "We arrange them for maximum hardness and maximum toughness."
Needs: More coating capacity. "This year, we plan to add more coating equipment," says Korenyi-Both, projecting a tenfold increase in the capacity of the company's chambers by the end of Q3 2015.