Skuld LLC lands $200K to develop stronger, lighter metals
July 2, 2019
Skuld, a startup launched in Dayton with a mission to make lighter, stronger metals, was awarded $200K by the U.S Department of Energy Small Business Innovation Research (SIBR) program last month.
Cofounders Sarah Jordan and Mark DeBruin launched the company out of a garage in Tipp City before relocating to the Columbus area last fall. They’ve been working on a new process to develop a material called thin wall ductile iron — but 4x thinner than it can currently be made.
This type of metal is commonly used in automotive parts like differentials, brackets, brake calipers, rotors, etc., Sarah said. Typically, ductile iron can only be cast to to 0.25 inches before carbides form and it becomes prone to cracking. But with their new process, Skuld can get the metal as thin as 0.06 inches without negative properties. They use a process called lost foam casting which is a type of investment casting.
This ability opens the doors for automakers to redesign parts to be lighter — and therefore more fuel-efficient, hence the Department of Energy interest, Sarah said. This metal is so thin and light with the new process, that it is even feasible for it to replace some aluminum parts, even thought iron is denser than aluminum, she added.
“That’s when people look at me like I’m crazy,” she said with a laugh. “It’s counter-intuitive to switch to a denser material than aluminum, but if you have an aluminum part of more than .25” thick, this could be an opportunity to make a component more lightweight.”
Automakers are committed to making their vehicles lighter in order to keep up with fuel efficiency standards, she explained. The federal government began setting these standards during the oil crisis in the 1970s, and they’ve slowly been creeping up, she said. Right now, new vehicle fleets must average 35 miles per gallon off the line — but in 2025, that average required will jump up to 54.4 mpg, she said.
Sarah & Mark are both metallurgical engineers, meaning they specialize in working with metals. Combined, they have more than three decades’ experience in the metal casting industry.
They worked at their first startup in 2000, and launched their first startup attempt in 2008. The economy slumped, and they closed it up in 2010. Then in 2015, they tried again and launched Skuld.
“It was about having innovative technology that we think would be beneficial to society and wanting to commercialize that,” she said. “It shouldn’t stay on the shelf as research.”
The $200K SBIR award will help the duo develop the tech in order to make the surface of metal smoother and confirm the material properties. They’ll be working with the foundry at The Ohio State University.
Once that research is completed, they hope to snag a round two award and begin partnering with those automakers or other manufacturers who are looking to redesign their parts. They expect to produce some of those parts to sell to the auto manufacturers, but also hope to directly license the process to the larger automakers, like Ford, who own captive foundries.
Sarah credits a Wright Brothers Institute workshop on SBIR proposal-writing and an energy department program called Dawnbreaker, which provides small businesses with a mentor during the SBIR-writing process, in helping Skuld successfully land the award.
On the side, she and Mark are still working on some of the ideas that spawned their earlier startup work, including the ability to use steel in lost foam casting.
“I feel passionate about making things more efficient. From the standpoint of an engineer, things being done in a wasteful way annoys me,” Sarah said. “In this day and age, with all the news about climate change, we have to find a way to do more with less, & feeling like I’m finding a way to make a difference is important.”
The $200K SBIR award is one of 231 grants totaling $46 million that the Department of Energy awarded last month to 202 small businesses in 39 states and the District of Columbia.
For more information on Skuld’s work, visit www.skuldllc.com.