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Is Plasma Production Technology Our Path To The Materials Of The Future?

6K’s UniMelt microwave plasma. Image courtesy 6K

Our age-old material-making technologies are beginning to fall behind. New manufacturing methods such as 3-D printing, and breakthrough products such as batteries for EVs and energy storage, require raw material properties not achievable with established methods. Legacy metal-forming and other material-making processes–some of them hundreds of years old now–have served us well. But as our manufacturing technologies and the products they make become more advanced and complex, so does our need for new and better materials, along with new and better ways of making them.

Pete Basiliere, Managing Director of Monadnock Insights, a 3-D printing technology and strategy consultancy, notes that 3-D printing’s use in volume production is constrained by material availability, quality and cost. “Buyers must have confidence,” he pointed out, “that 3-D printed parts will not only perform as expected but also that subsequent purchases will be of the same quality.”

The leadership team of 6K believes its high-frequency microwave plasma production system is one answer. (Considered a fourth phase of matter, after solids, liquids and gases, plasma is a high-temperature ionized gas–ionized referring to the positively- or negatively-charged atoms and molecules it contains.) The company’s name refers to the 6,000-degree working temperature of their UniMelt process, which harnesses plasma to produce advanced materials. That process arose from discoveries made at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Connecticut Innovation Labs. Now backed by 18 patents, theirs are the only commercial-scale microwave plasma production systems. The company has raised $40 million over two funding rounds to back its commercialization.

6K’s microwave-engineered plasma creates a production zone of extremely uniform, extremely high temperatures. By combining that heat with highly reactive ions and designed chemistries (introducing plasma enables processes that transcend the traditional rules of chemistry), it can deliver extremely predictable final products, premium metal powder feedstocks for high-tech manufacturing applications such as additive manufacturing and the production of advanced batteries. In the case of electric storage, plasma technology can collapse multiple productions steps into one for producing cathode materials.

Dr. Aaron Bent, 6K CEO. Image courtesy 6K

Aaron Bent, 6K’s CEO, holds a PhD in Aeronautics from MIT and has over 20 years of experience in the founding and commercialization of disruptive technology companies. “We see this as a manufacturing revolution,” he said. “Starting with a ‘ball of sun,’ at least the same temperature as the surface of sun, we use gas flows to form a large production zone four inches in diameter and eight feet long. That’s special–it can ‘bend’ chemistry rules.” Plasma has a proven track record of doing just that in the semiconductor industry. Now 6K is looking to use it to disrupt conventional chemical and solid-state advanced material production processes.

“Take the traditional chemistry processes at places like Dow or DuPont,” Bent said. “They have a three- to four-day production time. We drop that to less than two seconds. Ours is sustainable production, and it’s able to create an infinite number of options.”

Conventional production processes are large multi-step batch processes that generate waste and have yield loss at every step. Several of those steps are chemistry-intensive and produce hazardous byproducts. The 6K plasma process, on the other hand, is continuous, producing little waste and increasing yield, while delivering custom-engineered finished materials. Each production UniMelt system measures just 20 feet by 20 feet. Multiple units can be used to scale up for production throughputs as needed. “Each machine can produce up to 100 tons per year,” said Bent. “We collapse a lot of traditional steps into one simple and small footprint.”

The new process’s sustainability story goes well beyond yield and waste improvements. “We take the circular economy to a new level, a lot closer to zero loss,” Bent offered. In the case of additive manufacturing feedstocks, the company can use the scrap from other operations as its raw material, including waste from subtractive manufacturing like legacy machining operations and CNC machining. “Our Pittsburgh operation does a million pounds a year of scrap processing,” he said.

One of the biggest sustainability aspects of the process is that it can up-cycle scrap materials as well, producing high-quality finished goods from low-quality scrap. It can recycle materials that were previously difficult or not financially feasible to rework, which offers further advantages. “Think about national security,” said Bent. “We can recycle scrap titanium, which would otherwise be burned or landfilled, to create high value titanium that replaces foreign titanium sponge, which is subject to a Presidential memorandum because of how much of it is imported and how critical it is for the defense industry. We can do any metallurgy that’s needed.”

A close-up look at 6K Rhenium powder shows the smooth surfaces and spherical form of the particles. Image courtesy 6K

The process also has the ability to produce custom-tailored finished product particle size and distribution. This is a big advantage in serving the disparate but very specific material characteristics needed for advanced manufacturing technologies, whether it’s 10 nanometers for producing nano-LED phosphors, or 10 microns for additive manufacturing and battery-making applications.

It’s that ability to deliver materials that can’t be produced by legacy technologies that is the most substantial benefit. The process can custom-tailor such characteristics as crystallinity and density, and can do so in a very predictable and uniform way. Particularly for advanced manufacturing methods such as 3-D printing, and applications with needs for advanced materials, such as battery-making or coatings, 6K looks poised for huge leaps forward for its customers. “And it’s not just about metals,” Bent explained. “For example, we can make transparent ceramic that’s as clear as glass and as hard as sapphire. We can engineer all kinds of new materials you just couldn’t make before.”

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