'Everlasting' razor blade could go to US: Row between inventor and university over the rights to a breakthrough in diamond-coating could lose Britain crucial patent. Susan Watts reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A BRITISH technological breakthrough that allows an everlasting edge to be put on a razor blade - and much else besides - may be commercially exploited in the US after a bitter academic row.

The technique is diamond- coating, the laying of thin films of diamond on to virtually any surface, making it almost indestructible.

Its discoverer, Transylvanian-born inventor Ernest Nagy, says Bristol University, whose scientists helped him to analyse the process, is trying to set up its own deals with companies to exploit it - a claim that the university denies.

'It's like someone planning your marriage behind your back,' Mr Nagy, 51, an independent scientist of a type rarely found today, said. He has no formal qualifications, yet has attracted the serious interest of many British academics and industrialists. He is so upset, he has put the patent on the original technology up for sale and it is thought an American university will buy it.

The research into diamond- coating has cost millions of pounds and taken years. It could revolutionise materials science, with lucrative civilian and military applications, from semiconductor devices to extra hard-wearing skis - besides the razor blade that never goes blunt, a possibility exciting interest at Gillette, one of the leading manufacturers.

But researchers had been unable to find a cheap and reliable way of producing such coatings until Mr Nagy, a refugee from Hungary after the 1956 uprising against the Russians, stumbled upon one. While performing experiments with Teflon non-stick coatings several years ago, he found that with a high-speed spinning 'mop' he could put a thin film of almost any coating on almost any surface.

Realising that this could be done with diamonds, Mr Nagy called in scientists at Bristol University to help analyse the process and set up a laboratory with them last year. The university claims that it has joint rights with Mr Nagy over developments resulting from work at the laboratory. Mr Nagy denies this and says that he owns full rights over the technology.

He fears the university is intent on exploiting his technique by instituting talks with South African diamond interests who may develop it commercially.

Bristol is known to have discussed the process with the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which has been researching the possibilities of Mr Nagy's diamond-coating and studied his early samples for Anglo American, a South African-based conglomerate with close ties to De Beers, the world's most famous diamond company.

Mr Nagy is particularly concerned about Anglo American, because the company tried to buy out his interests in 1992. As reported in the Independent, the deal turned sour when he became convinced the company would restrict control over the technology.

Don Carlton, the university's information officer, said there had been no formal talks between the university and Anglo American and that Mr Nagy may have misinterpreted talks held with 'South African interests', which included discussion of a new science park to be set up in Cape Town.

Mr Carlton said: 'The university will not talk publicly about commercially sensitive discussions or ideas that might be patentable.' He said Mr Nagy would be involved in discussions once these became relevant to him.

Mr Nagy is not convinced and has put his personal patent rights up for sale through a New York lawyer. He is talking to US universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ohio State University and Purdue University.

Because of Mr Nagy's personal investment in the research he faces pounds 500,000 worth of debts, according to a report in the current issue of New Scientist magazine. He always wanted his technique to be exploited in Britain, he says, but has become impatient. He is working with a German jet engine company to create extra- durable diamond-coated components. 'It is just insane that we are next to Rolls Royce here in Bristol and yet are doing this jet project in Germany,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)