Fusion Coolant Systems Cracks Big Problems in Manufacturing, Now Needs Customers

11/15/10

Manufacturers have made strides in rolling eco-friendly products like electric vehicles off their assembly lines, yet it might be a bigger challenge to entice industry to clean up its production methods. Ann Arbor, MI-based startup Fusion Coolant Systems is taking on this challenge with its brand new metalworking fluid technology.

Steven Skerlos, a co-inventor of the startup’s technology and an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, filled me in on the problems his latest startup’s system aims to solve. For starters, metalworking fluids, which are ubiquitous in manufacturing, typically use the basic ingredients of water, to cool metal, and petroleum-based oil, to lubricate it. To make the water-oil combination work, a bunch of toxic chemicals are needed to kill bacteria that grow in the fluid, prevent rusting, and reduce foaming from surfactants, among other things.

Yet there are major economic, environmental, and health problems linked to traditional metalworking fluids. Exposure to the toxic chemicals has been linked to skin irritation, respiratory problems, and cancer. It’s also expensive to purchase the fluids themselves and pay for their disposal. And there has been very little change in how metalworking fluids are formulated over the last half century, Skerlos says.

Skerlos, who has been researching metalworking fluids since 1994, told me that his eureka moment for what would become Fusion’s technology came when he learned more about the properties of supercritical carbon dioxide. Skerlos realized that supercritical CO2, which is highly compressed, could replace water as a coolant in metalworking fluids because of its low temperature when released as a spray. With the injection of lubricants into the C02 system, it could offer both the cooling and lubrication needed—without requiring the toxic chemicals. The system works best with renewable, non-toxic lubricants, according to Skerlos.

While the startup says it has shown that the system works at small scales, it’s an entirely different challenge to get the famously conservative manufacturing industry to break from decades if not centuries of metalworking traditions to adopt the firm’s technology.

“You’re looking at a very conservative industry; they don’t change very quickly,” Andrew McColm, a co-founder and financial chief of the startup, says. “This is an extremely radical change. And this is very different from the way people have machined in the past.”

McColm is leading efforts to raise between $500,000 and $1 million from private investors, he says, enough money to enable the firm to get six to a dozen customers up and running with its system in their plants. The University of Michigan has awarded $227,000 in gap funding to develop the firm’s technology, and this year the startup received $220,000 more via a Small Business Innovation Research grant to get the business some early support, according to the university’s tech transfer office.

Still, there are other firms that are offering new ways to provide improved coolants or lubricants for machining. For example, companies are offering lubricant sprays that reduce the amount of metalworking fluids that are needed to cut metal. However, Skerlos says, such products primarily lubricate while Fusion’s technology both lubricates and cools the metal with a single system.

Skerlos previously co-founded Accuri Cytometers, a venture-backed Ann Arbor firm that makes inexpensive flow cytometers for life sciences customers. (In fact, Skerlos’s original idea for Accuri was inspired by research that required him to measure and study bacteria in machining fluids.) Tom Gross, the startup’s CEO, is a veteran of the machine tool industry.

The startup’s team is not naive about the challenges of starting a new company whose success will require manufacturers to break with deeply ingrained tradition, and the company realizes that it will need to deliver productivity gains to its customers as well as health and environmental improvements. The firm will also need to do some engineering to customize the system for the specific lubrication and cooling needs of certain machining operations.

“[Customers] don’t care about better cutting fluids, they care about better machining,” Skerlos says.

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