Casting is considered - UK Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Liquid Metal Engineering
The UK casting industry has received a boost with the foundation of a facility to develop the field. Dr Ian Stone, at Brunel University, Uxbridge, UK, reports
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Liquid Metal Engineering (LiME) was created in February 2010 as a national centre of excellence based at Brunel University, Uxbridge, UK.
The facility has adopted a Gaian approach (conceived by James Lovelock), which opens up a vision of the inter-dependence of all things within the natural world and considers that the demand for metallic materials should be met by an efficient circulation of existing metallic materials, with limited additions of primary metal to sustain the circulation loop. Recycling and re-use save most of the energy and carbon emissions associated with primary metal production.
The Centre will conduct fundamental research in solidification science, and the main aim is to develop new and sustainable metal treatment and casting technologies for the UK metal casting industry.
The objective is to achieve control of the cast state by managing nucleation during solidification, and to ensure that solidification processing is used to manufacture high performance metallic components and feedstock materials through liquid metal engineering, with a reduced need for solid state processing.
The UK metal casting industry is a key player in the global market. It adds £2.6bln/y to the UK economy, employing around 30,000 people and produces 1.14bln tonnes of metal castings, of which 37% is for direct export. It underpins the competitive position of every sector of UK manufacturing across automotive, aerospace, defence, energy and general engineering, and yet its 500 companies are mainly SMEs without access to corporate research centres.
As the UK requires a more balanced economy with strong support for manufacturing, there is a need to support the casting industry. Deployment of light alloy castings and wrought components is crucial for vehicle lightweighting and this, in turn, depends on UK suppliers investing in relevant new technologies.
The LiME team consists of eight academics representing Brunel, Oxford and Birmingham Universities supported by a full-time Programme Manager. The principal investigator is Professor Zhongyun Fan at Brunel, supported by Professor Patrick Grant at Oxford and Professor Nick Green at Birmingham, creating a strong combination of core experience and practical casting capability in the UK university system. An international advisory board (IAB) comprises membership of leading international authorities on solidification.
The Centre’s industrial partners span the entire supply chain and include materials suppliers and processors, equipment manufacturers, recycling companies, and end-users, with an industrial steering panel (ISP) on the horizon. Research activities are divided between a platform research theme that focuses on fundamental science and a user-led theme that is driven by the industrial partners – each area is given equal emphasis.
The more fundamental platform research will lead to a better understanding of liquid metal structure and the mechanisms for heterogeneous nucleation. This work is already leading to methods for enhancing and controlling nucleation through both physical and chemical methods. Control and dispersion of oxides in melts to promote nucleation has been identified as a critical part of the Centre’s programme. Oxides have always been considered defects and the emphasis has been on their control and elimination by filtration. However, if they are efficiently dispersed in melts, they can provide a major benefit to the cast structure. This becomes more and more important as secondary metals are used as the source material.
The user-led research theme focuses on enhancing the quality of shape cast components and continuously cast feedstock through liquid metal engineering. The primary aim is to produce as-cast materials with fine and uniform microstructure and chemistry, and minimised casting defects. This should, in turn, improve mechanical properties.
For both the platform and user-led research the emphasis is on the use of secondary metals to reduce the energy consumption and cost of the final components, while improving their performance.
The centre brings together facilities for solidification research at the three partner universities, including state-of-the art equipment for analytical modelling and molecular dynamic simulation, a range of innovative casting processes, technologies for engineering and assessing liquid metals, and an extensive suite of tools for microstructural characterisation.