A passion for stainless steels – the Outokumpu Foundations

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2008

David Dulieu describes the Outokumpu Stainless Research Foundations.

There are many models for industry-university interaction. In the case of stainless steels, two related charitable foundations – the Outokumpu Stainless Research Foundations in Sweden and the UK – have been working to generate new knowledge and provide opportunities for young people to carry out academic work on this class of materials.

Since 1989, support has been provided to 62 students, with over half gaining doctorates. The support ranges from fully-funded studentships to supplementary grants and assistance in kind. Twenty-four academic centres have been involved in seven countries.

Rationalisation results

Rationalisation of the Swedish stainless steel industry led to Avesta becoming a major flat products producer. In 1989, the company endowed a charitable foundation to generate and promote knowledge of stainless steels as a class of materials. Since then, support has been provided for both academic research and collaboration with other relevant institutes and research centres in Sweden and in other, predominantly European, countries.

Research topics were chosen to provide better understanding of the applications of stainless steels, particularly in sectors where their use offers environmental advantages, such as in architecture, building construction and transport. Projects have covered fundamental aspects of deformation behaviour, the development of structural design criteria, understanding fire resistance performance, as well as welding and joining methods.

In the UK, a similar rationalisation process led to the formation of British Steel Stainless as the major producer of stainless flat products. Following the merger in 1991 of Avesta and British Steel Stainless, to form Avesta Sheffield, it was decided to endow a similar foundation in the UK. This foundation focuses on postgraduate students carrying out research for higher degrees.

Subsequently, the Finnish metals and mining group Outokumpu Oyj acquired an interest in Avesta Sheffield and took full control as Outokumpu Stainless in 2004. The group had endowed a research foundation, making grants mainly to Finnish academic research centres, to develop the country’s metal technology, ore geology and corresponding business activities. Outokumpu Stainless continues to encourage the work of the two specialist foundations and these operate in close co-operation.

Stainless studies

Broad sectors of interest are identified through the research board and translated into individual projects, for example, the Swedish Foundation initiated a long-standing involvement with Sheffield Hallam University, UK. The group made a systematic study of joining methods for thin-gauge sheet products for lightweight mobile structures in the transport sector. With projects at other centres, a range of joining techniques have been assessed, including welding, adhesive bonding and mechanical joining.

Proposals are often put forward by academic staff that are of particular value in providing opportunities to evaluate new research techniques. For example, in a recently completed study at the University of Lulea, Sweden, work-hardening mechanisms were studied using high energy microprobe X-ray diffraction to examine sub-structures, internal stresses and deformation-induced phase changes.

The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, has a well-established group using thermodynamic data and physical models to predict materials behaviour. Recently, the phase field simulation approach has been applied to model grain growth processes and phase transformation in stainless steels. Related investigations include a study at the Helsinki University of Technology on work hardening and transformations in metastable austentic steels. At the ‘hot end’, the advanced plane strain compression deformation facilities at the IMMPETUS centre, at the University of Sheffield, have been used to model the evolution of microstructures in ferritic stainless steels during multi-pass hot rolling.

There has been a long-standing involvement in understanding the factors governing structural applications of stainless steels. For several years the Swedish Foundation has supported studies to develop design codes for civil engineers. These help to ensure efficient design, taking into account the differences in deformation behaviour between stainless and conventional structural steels.

The Foundation has co-sponsored a series of seminars at which international experts meet at four-yearly intervals to review progress in developing design methods. The third session was held at the Steel Construction Institute, Ascot, UK, in November 2007. A significant contribution came from within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial College London, UK. Here, with assistance from the UK Foundation, the deformation behaviour of cold-formed tubular sections was analysed. A combination of full-scale member testing, localised material properties assessment and mathematical modeling has been used to propose significant improvements in the design process.

How it works

When topics of interest are identified, the initial step is to find a suitable combination of supervisor, department resources and student. Students of the UK Foundation have enjoyed the benefit of support from EPSRC, and the structure of the CASE award is the model for many studentships (postgraduate awards allocated to companies to enable them to take the lead in defining, and arranging, projects with an academic partner of their choice). Specialist technical support can be provided from research groups in Outokumpu Stainless, located at Avesta and Tornio in Finland. However, collaborations have been on a flexible basis and, in some cases, partial grants, or support for access to specialised equipment, have been provided to students who are already receiving funding.

Projects are organised directly with university departments and students have no direct obligations to the Foundation. Access to specialists working in the industry, awareness of the practical relevance of research, regular project review and good communication skills are regarded as important for student development.

A key requirement is open dissemination of the knowledge generated in projects. As work matures, publication and attendance at suitable conferences and seminars are strongly encouraged. A highlight is the annual research seminar, held in autumn at the Avesta Research Centre. This enables students to give a presentation to their peers and technical and academic experts outside of the university environment. A similar event is held in the UK. Recently, attendance at the UK seminar has been broadened to give non-Foundation students working in related areas an opportunity to participate.

The pattern of activity has been established by Professor Hans Nordberg, first director of the Swedish Foundation, ably followed by Professor Staffan Hertzman. The composition of the research board, made up of senior company technical staff with external members from the research community, has varied over the years. All, however, have shared a passion for their chosen material and a concern for both enhancing knowledge and providing challenging research opportunities for young people.

Further information:

Outokumpu Foundations