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Greening the Manufacturing Process

FUSION COOLANT SYSTEMS | Steven Skerlos

In a typical year, nearly two billion gallons of metalworking fluid (MWF) are used to make parts for automobiles, heavy industry, aerospace, and biomedical products. Without MWF, manufacturing would literally grind to a halt.

But laced as they are with stabilizers, corrosion inhibitors, defoamers, surfactants, and other toxic chemicals, the fluids pose a serious threat to worker health and, as they enter the waste stream, and the wider environment. There's also an economic consideration, since the maintenance and disposal of MWF represents an estimated 15 percent of the total cost of metals manufacturing.

It's a problem that has long fascinated Mechanical Engineering Professor Steven Skerlos. Early in his career, Skerlos focused his efforts on developing a membrane-based filtration technology for metalworking fluids to avoid disposal and remove bacteria, "That's where my first lesson in technology transfer began," he says with a smile. "I quickly discovered there was no market for the product. Factories had no incentive to solve the problem."

For the next few years, Skerlos turned his attention to opportunities in life science research. With seed money from the U-M College of Engineering, he brought together a team of faculty to devise a low-cost, laser-based florescent detection system for quantifying and identifying bacteria and cells in single-celled organisms. This time, there was definitely a market—in both life science research and health care. In 2004, his efforts paid off with the highly successful launch of Accuri Cytometers, Inc.

But by then, Skerlos was "feeling guilty that nothing had changed in the world of MWF." So he began searching out a new approach to the problem. His moment of inspiration came during a conference on electronics and the environment. "It occurred to me in a flash," he recalls. "If super-critical carbon dioxide can be used for cleaning semiconductors by dissolving oils, why can't it be used to deliver dissolved oils to metalworking processes?"

Referred to as CHiP Lube (composite high-pressure lubrication), the formula resulting from that idea replaces the 20+ toxic substances normally found in MWF with super-critical CO2 and a lubricant that is both non-toxic and renewable.

As work progressed, Skerlos and his fellow researchers hoped their new approach would prove to be as effective as acqueous fluids. As it turns out, CHiP Lube was far better.

"By 2007, we had shown that our product was better for the environment, better for worker health, better for productivity, and as much as seven times better at preventing tool wear," Skerlos recalls. "The question was: how to move from a lab process to a marketable product?"

The answer came in the form of $87,000 in gap funding from U-M Tech Transfer and the College of Engineering Translational Research fund, followed by an additional $140,000 in 2008 for prototype development and business-building activities. In 2010, a Phase I SBIR grant for $220,000 made it possible to launch Fusion Coolant Systems.

"Tech Transfer provided critical support that enabled us to demonstrate efficacy in an industrial setting," says Skerlos. "They also played a key role in executive recruitment. To me, entrepreneurship is a form of research. And with U-M's strong entrepreneurial culture and Tech Transfer's expertise, faculty can commercialize their discoveries without giving up their day jobs."

Fusion Coolant Systems is Steven Skerlos’s second start-up. In 2005, he co-founded Accuri Cytometers, Inc. to provide life scientists with affordable, full-featured analytical flow cytometers. He is also director of the U-M’s Environmental and Sustainable Technologies Laboratory, which is dedicated to promoting sustainable design and engineering education.