Interview | Conversation with a Nepali-British scientist making a mark in solving global materials challenges and sustainability

“Nepal has a very young materials industry sector. Nepal can take this as a strength to embrace and start working on advanced materials and technologies to support the global challenges.”

NL Today

  • Read Time 5 min.

Professor Suman Shrestha is Vice President of Applications Engineering at Keronite International Ltd, UK, a world leader in advanced surface technology for light alloys. He is also a Visiting Professor at the University of Leeds, UK. He serves as an Industrial Advisory Board member for the University of Leeds and Manchester Metropolitan University and is on the Editorial Board for Journals of ‘Surface Engineering’, ‘Tribology – Materials, Surfaces & Interfaces’ and ‘American Journal of Aerospace Engineering. He is a Chartered Engineer; Chartered Scientist; Fellow (IOM3) and Fellow (IMechE). He is, twice, the recipient of Nepal’s highest educational decoration ‘The order of the Mahendra Vidyabhushan Medal’ from His late Majesty King Birendra. He has led projects and developed advanced coating solutions for numerous ESA and NASA’s space programs including JWST, Sentinel 2 and 5, Bepi Colombo, Euclid, MetOp, CO3D, EnMAP, JUICE, FLEX, TRISHNA and Athena missions and also for Boeing 737 aircraft.

He joined Keronite Plc in 2005 to lead research, advancement and application development of a revolutionary plasma electrolytic oxidation (PEO) technology for aerospace & space, automotive, semi-conductor and oil & gas industries. Prior to this, he spent five years at TWI Ltd leading numerous projects and teams solving challenging industry problems and developing a wide variety of advanced surface technologies. Nepal Live Today recently caught up with him to discuss a wide range of issues.

You introduced plasma electrolytic oxidation in the United Kingdom. How did your journey to this technology start?

In 2000, upon completion of my PhD, I was very lucky to have been offered a job at TWI, one of the world’s foremost independent research and technology organizations. It is here where I learned and further developed my interests in using advanced surface technologies to solve engineering problems.

The same year, the Keronite company was registered in the UK and I was involved in setting up a lab-scale facility on plasma electrolytic oxidation (PEO) at TWI premises, subsequently learning, developing and promoting the technology internationally via TWI industrial members network. After five years, I completely moved to Keronite in 2005 to further advance the technology. 

Could you please give some examples of how plasma electrolytic oxidation is linked to the everyday life of people?

Some examples where the technology has been used include environmentally friendly aluminum frying (cooking) pans where a PEO coating layer combined with nanoceramic material was used to make them non-stick and more durable instead of using Teflon coating. Today the technology is being used on airplanes, cars, packaging tools, healthcare, optical systems and optoelectronics, space satellites, bicycle rims and many of the everyday electronic products we use just to mention a few where the PEO coating offers enhanced protection to the light-weight metal components from corrosion, wear and other forms of environmental degradation.

You did your PhD research on protective coatings for aqueous (highly corrosive) environments. What exactly does this mean and what were your findings?

My research had focused on one type of metal alloy coating to protect components exposed to offshore oil and gas environments where seawater mixed with sand can cause premature failure of the parts due to the combined effect of corrosion and erosion. My research work discovered understanding the science behind material degradation, developing methods and models to quantify such degradation, and assessing and proposing new materials coating processes to extend the durability of components functioning in extreme corrosion and wear environments.

It is interesting to know that you have been involved in a project which improves fuel efficiency in passenger vehicles. Could you please briefly explain your role in the project?

My main role was to lead or co-lead the development of novel ceramic coatings on light metal alloys. The first such recent project is thermal barrier coatings. It is a joint industry-academia research project that aimed to undertake systems analysis of a new integrated heat recovery concept for future hybrid and electric range extender passenger cars involving Tata Technologies Ltd, Jaguar-Land Rover, Keronite Ltd, TWI Ltd and the University of Nottingham and was funded by Innovate UK.

“Surface coating is key to extending the life of the products, and improving performance and efficiency.”

My and my team’s focus was to research and develop a new approach to coating automotive pistons with a low thermal conductivity which led to the discovery of a novel coating system that reduces heat loss from internal combustion engine walls and subsequently improves fuel efficiency and reduces particulate emissions.

The second research project is wear-resistant coatings. Most car brakes are currently made of cast iron which is quite heavy and impacts fuel consumption and subsequently carbon dioxide emissions known as ‘exhaust emission’ or ‘tail-pipe emission’. In addition, iron brakes are the second largest contributor of particulate emissions (very fine metal dust classified as type PM2.5 and PM10) from the vehicle known as ‘non-exhaust emission’ which has been linked to a range of acute health conditions (respiratory, cardiovascular, asthma, Alzheimer’s). This project resulted in the development of a wear-resistant PEO ceramic coated lightweight aluminum brake disc which is expected to be able to combat such environmental pollution.

In addition to the above, I have been closely working for a number of years with the University of Leeds on friction, tribology and emission studies where I have been co-supervising as an industrial advisor to several PhD students in the coating field.

How can Nepal benefit from your expertise in the materials sector? What prospects do you see for the country in the future?

Nepal has a very young material industry sector. But, I think Nepal can take this as strength to embrace and start working on advanced materials and technologies to support the global challenges. The world is very interconnected these days and Nepali brains are part of this global effort in solving materials challenges and sustainability. Today, many high-profile engineers and scientists of Nepali origin are working in industry and academia internationally and this is definitely having benefits to society across the globe.

Materials are part of everyday life whether it is cooking utensils, smartphones and electrical goods or cars, airplanes, or medical instruments. I think Nepal is in a very good position to help the circular economy and environmental sustainability where it is quite common for Nepali people to embrace ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’ concept of materials. Nepal can be a leading example to promote sustainable and renewable energy sources such as solar and hydropower electrification and focus on materials developments, self-energy reliance, promote the use of electric vehicles and exporting energy in these areas could be a game-changer for its economy and environment.

I am planning to give a talk at Kathmandu University (KU) this year on ‘Materials and environmental challenges and advanced coatings’ that can be highly relevant in Nepal’s context, especially the non-exhaust emission (brake dust, road dust, tire dust) in Kathmandu. This is now a big issue in Europe and America and I am sure it will be very much a new thing in developing countries. It is probably the right time for people there to understand how it adversely affects environmental pollution and human health so that appropriate steps can be taken in terms of materials development, driving behavior and traffic management.

What suggestions do you have for young people who would like to pursue their careers in Materials science and engineering?

Today materials science and engineering are not just limited to mechanical engineering components. This branch of science is being used in digital manufacturing, artificial intelligence, medical science, and space explorations and affects almost every product we see or use today. Surface coating is key to extending the life of the products, and improving performance and efficiency.

We need young and talented engineers. Just give it a go, one will not regret it. This is the area in such strong demand that even developed countries are struggling to find people to recruit. In my personal experience, this sector has very good career prospects, freedom and independence for future innovation and helps solve industry problems to combat global challenges of materials and energy security, environmental sustainability and thus making a difference in society.