Showing mettle - R&D for UK light metals

Materials World magazine
2 Nov 2010

In recent years, R&D for the UK light metals industry has declined. However, a robust group of supported projects remain as a core for future growth. Geoff Scamans, Chief Scientific Officer at Innoval Technology Ltd, Banbury, UK, highlights the key projects.

Over the past 10 years, the UK aluminium industry has experienced precipitous decline in almost all sectors. The magnesium industry has remained small, with only six companies, and has not grown as expected, while the titanium sector has remained steady with strong aerospace support. Nonetheless, there are significant relevant research programmes in UK universities that are supported by funding from the UK Engineering and Physical Research Council (EPSRC) and the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) (see charts below and far right). The Light Metals Division of IOM3 has attempted an analysis of these programmes.

The EPSRC has invested £19.6m into doctoral training centres that support studentships relevant to light metals. The Advanced Metallic Systems Centre, at the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester, brings together expertise in metallurgy, manufacturing, surface engineering and corrosion science. Examples of research projects include attempts to control corrosion and hydrogen evolution in magnesium alloys for biomedical applications, and analysis of near-surface deformed layers during aluminium alloy fabrication.

The EPSRC/Rolls Royce Doctoral Training Partnership in Structural Metallic Systems for Gas Turbine Applications brings together the Universities of Birmingham and Cambridge, with Swansea University, to support projects on conventional and novel titanium, aluminium and magnesium alloy systems, and titanium metal matrix composites. The Doctoral Training Centre for Theory and Simulation of Materials at Imperial College aims to develop vacancy and dislocation motion models to predict enhanced healing of voids during superplastic forming, and on the interfacial free energy of solid-melt interfaces in light metals and alloys, and on phase stability in biomedical titanium alloys.

Driving forward

Two major initiatives, the Light Alloys Towards Environmentally Sustainable Transport: 2nd Generation (LATEST2), and the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Liquid Metal Engineering are analysed in more depth in other articles.

The strategic partnership formed between EPSRC and Rolls-Royce provides a coordinated programme of materials development and processing, micro-structural and defect modelling, and characterisation and prediction of high temperature materials at the Universities of Birmingham, Cambridge, Sheffield and Swansea.

The research council is also investing in fellowships in light metals for Dr David Dye at Imperial College, who is leading research into materials that exploit stress and electromagnetic field affected phase transformations, and for Dr Julian Allwood at the University of Cambridge who is focusing on achieving carbon targets within the aluminium industry.

The chart (click here to view 1.5mb image in a new window) shows that the EPSRC has provided two first grants for light metals research at Imperial College and has continued to support light metal research through its responsive mode grants and targeted funding. This has provided support for the Institute for Microstructural and Mechanical Process Engineering at the University of Sheffield (IMMPETUS) to continue with its work on modelling and simulating aluminium and steel processing. While the new advanced materials processing centre at the University of Strathclyde has been given a boost in support of the Rolls Royce R&D programme on low carbon aircraft engines. Generally the responsive mode and targeted grants have been spread across aluminium, titanium and magnesium research.

Right strategy?

An analysis of TSB-supported projects relevant to light metals is more difficult to compile as these concern higher technology readiness levels and are more commercially sensitive. An analysis of the 477 projects listed on their website found 27 funded projects that are metals related in some way, compared to 42 that relate to composites. Of the metal’s projects, a search of their abstracts reveals that 12 are steel related, six aluminium, two titanium and one magnesium.

The others are not specific to a particular metal. However, this is not the complete picture, as the TSB has funded more than 800 projects to date, and if additional known projects are added it rises to the 14 projects detailed in the table (see link above).

These research programmes have all been in the technology areas of advanced materials (seven), high value manufacturing (four) or environmental sustainability (three). The TSB is now focusing its calls on the themes of energy, sustainability and high value markets. The timeline in the chart (click here to view 1.5mb image in a new window) shows the progressive change for advanced materials projects to those related to environmental sustainability and high value manufacturing. The Strategy Board’s call provides £18m for project support across six themes that include both advanced materials and high value manufacturing.

The most significant change with time has been the increasing involvement and commitment of Jaguar Land Rover, who partners in six of the projects shown in the chart (see second link above) and is the lead partner on four projects in line with their commitment to lightweight automotive structures. There is no similar commitment from any of the other automotive manufacturers in the UK, who are mainly supported by research centres closer to their parent companies.

On the aerospace side Rolls Royce have secured a large grant from the TSB, the programme is called Strategic Affordable Manufacturing in the UK with Leading Environmental Technology (SAMULET) and is led by Rolls Royce, with other high profile manufacturers, SMEs and several UK universities. The TSB is investing £28.5m in the programme and the EPSRC £11.5m out of a total of around £90m.

Further information

Geoff Scamans, Innoval Technology Ltd, Beaumont Close, Banbury, Oxon, UK, OX16 1TQ. Tel: +44 (0) 1295 702826. Email: