The Cutting Edge of Diamond Forming
This UAB-incubated enterprise excels in advanced materials R&D — from forming nano-diamond coatings to a DoD contract to solve the “tin whiskers” problem.
Vista Engineering’s founder Raymond Thompson, at microscope, and product development VP Paul Baker check out a project.
Scientific exploration is the kinetic energy coursing through Vista Engineering & Consulting LLC. With more than 30 years of engineering experience, Raymond Thompson formed the engineering and consulting firm to develop better materials and innovative solutions across a dynamic range of industries. The Birmingham-based company excels in research and development and forensic engineering analysis.
Prior to founding Vista Engineering in 1998, Thompson served on the faculty at UAB’s School of Engineering. After physics professor Yogesh Vohra patented a diamond coating process, Thompson decided to start a company to explore the technology. “I suspected it would be useful in making and improving tools,” he says. “Since then, it’s proven effective in a variety of ways.”
Vista began operation in a 300-square-foot space at UAB’s Office for the Advancement of Developing Industries, a business incubator near Birmingham. When the university moved its incubator downtown to Innovation Depot, Vista received new space for its offices and labs. “We have the facility and tools to do whatever we need to do,” says Vice President of Product Development Paul Baker. “We have room to explore.”
The nine staff members are now dedicated to the research and development of new materials. Among the most innovative of their endeavors is nano-diamond coating technology. Vista uses patented technology to form diamond films from carbon. These films, thinner than one millionth of an inch, can be applied to metals to greatly increase their hardness and durability. Diamond-coated metals are ideal for cutting tools, like drills, and moving prosthetic parts that could wear down with use.
Vista forms its diamond coatings through microwave plasma-assisted chemical vapor deposition. “We know that the natural formation of diamonds requires immense heat and pressure in the earth,” says Thompson, “but we’ve found a way to do that in the lab.”
The engineers use specialized equipment to turn carbon into a vapor, so that it can condense on a surface. As the carbon deposits, Vista’s engineers can control the structure of the carbon, forming diamond. “Diamond can form in many ways, not just as rocks,” says Thompson. “We can form it into films to be applied to various surfaces, like dew on grass.”
The diamond coating may soon be applied to titanium prosthetics. “Titanium is a biocompatible metal, so it’s ideal for prosthetic use,” says Thompson. “The metal can wear down over time, though. This becomes a problem when used in moving parts like joints.” To find a solution to this problem, The National Institutes of Health has funded collaborative research between Vista Engineering and UAB.
Vista is currently working with UAB’s dental school to develop a durable prosthetic temporomandibular joint. The joint facilitates movement of the lower jaw, a location where frequent movement could wear down an untreated titanium prosthetic. “We’re covering the titanium with our diamond coating,” says Thompson. “Like titanium, our diamond material is biocompatible. The coating will allow the titanium to function as a moving joint without the wear and tear.”
The diamond-coated joint is now being tested at UAB. The forecast for the prosthetic is optimistic, and the technology could be applied to more prosthetic parts in the future. “We hope to further this for other medical uses,” says Baker. “Given the diamond coating’s aptitude for enhancing moving parts, we’ve begun working on a coated knee joint.”
In addition to its diamond coating technology, the laboratory is furnished with specialized tools for metalwork, magnification, and a multitude of analyzing and testing equipment. With such state-of-the-art tools at their disposal, Vista Engineering can provide a wide range of consulting services.
The expert staff is often called upon to offer technical witness for litigation, product liability cases and other legal matters. “We’re typically brought in to see what went wrong,” says Thompson. “In the case of an industrial or auto accident that may have resulted from a design or mechanical failure, we can determine where the fault lies.”
Thompson has served as an expert witness for more than 30 years and works with his staff to analyze case material and present their findings to a jury. Vista Engineering has provided litigation-related forensic services for an impressive collection of corporations, legal firms and government agencies, including the Department of Defense and NASA.
Vista has developed computer programs that can simulate the qualities and behaviors of their materials. These programs can help engineers determine what metals are suited for certain needs and what forces they can withstand. The digital drawing board allows companies to save time and money before committing them to a physical test. “The actual testing of materials can take years of trial and error,” says Thompson. “That can be an enormously expensive process.”
The Department of Defense used Vista’s computer programs during the development of a forged rotor disc for a turbine gas engine. “They needed to see how their alloys would perform before putting the disc to a physical test,” says Thompson. “We devised a computer model to demonstrate how the alloy used would react to the forging process.”
Elsewhere, Vista Engineering has made some surprising discoveries while researching the growth and prevention of a troublesome electronics problem caused by “tin whiskers.” “About 10 years ago, health concerns caused manufacturers to take the lead solder out of their products and replace it with tin,” says Thompson. “Problems arose when equipment began to malfunction. Tin can grow small strands, or ‘whiskers,’ that can reach out and contact other electrical components, causing a short circuit.”
Tin whiskers have been found to short out many common items, such as televisions and watches, and have caused serious complications in defense systems and satellites. “With a legitimate concern about tin whiskers and with lead out of the question, we were tasked to find a solution,” says Thompson.
Vista received a grant from The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to research tin whisker growth. The engineers are now studying surface oxide chemistry and conformal coating in their testing. “We’ve looked at the cause and growth of the metal whiskers,” says Thompson. “Along the way, we’ve even found a way to grow them better. It was all in an effort to get to the root of the problem.”
Through their research in tin whisker prevention, Vista began studying surface corrosion. This study diverged into a separate endeavor in collaboration with Brian Gregory, of Samford University. Beyond the original goal, the staff has developed new experimental surface coatings and is now considering alternative ways to use this technology.
This drive to explore defines Vista Engineering. Thompson and company believe that scientific curiosity is essential for continued progress and innovation in their industry.
“You have to have people with creative minds, that work hard, and love what they’re doing,” he says. “That facilitates the progression of new ideas. Together, we can speculate on new thoughts and move forward on unique prospects.”
Thomas Little is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.