IBC Advanced Alloys (IBC), a small firm based in Vancouver, has spent nearly a decade capturing the attention and business of customers building some of the world’s most sophisticated aerospace technology. The list includes industry giants like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon and Boeing. Since last June the company has received three orders from Lockheed Martin to produce components for the F-35 fighter. This past September, an Asian manufacturer of precision instruments placed two orders totalling $1.2 million.
What has brought most of these clients to IBC’s door is a family of beryllium-aluminum alloys that has introduced entirely new applications for these two metals. While such alloys have been around since the 1950s, relatively high costs limited their use.
IBC has addressed this limitation with an alloying technique that mixes and compresses the two metals as elemental powders in a vacuum. This approach dramatically improves the efficiency of the casting process, which can make use of almost all of the raw input of the rare metal beryllium. The result has been the company’s flagship product Beralcast, which combines light weight and stiffness with a much lower price tag than other materials that might be used.
According to Chris Huskamp, IBC’s executive vice-president of business and technology development, Beralcast has a modulus comparable to steel, giving it a tensile strength about three times greater than aluminum but with a density about 22 percent less. The alloy’s coefficient of thermal expansion is low, making it a good candidate for coping with the dramatic temperature swings endured by anything that goes into high altitudes and outer space.
IBC touts the use of Beralcast in some of the intricate optical and mechanical hardware used in aircraft and spacecraft as well as comparatively mundane equipment such as high-performance computer disc drive armatures. Huskamp is anticipating other earthbound possibilities that the firm is just starting to explore, such as automotive materials. He points to NASCAR engines that already use copper-beryllium alloy valve seats for superior heat conductivity. At the right price point, he says, beryllium alloys could find their way into vehicles the rest of us might drive. “You can have the best-performing material in the world but if it is truly considered unobtainable based on pricing then it’s not really an opportunity,” says Huskamp. “You’ve got to build the business case as well as build the science behind it to get there. That’s what we’ve effectively done, which has completely opened the door for us.”