Car makers in Britain will be the first to benefit from revolutionary new metal casting techniques developed at Brunel University in London, thanks to a Government-supported programme to take laboratory discoveries and upscale them for industry.
The £14 million Advanced Metal Casting Centre (AMCC) at Brunel will bridge the gap between fundamental research and full-scale industrial trials. It is jointly funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the aluminium automotive sheet and extrusions solutions provider Constellium, Brunel, and a major luxury car manufacturer.
The new facility will draw on the work done by Professor Zhongyun Fan and his team at the Brunel Centre for Advanced Solidification Technology (BCAST) to improve the recyclability of metals.
“Our long term aim,” said Professor Fan, “is to reduce the amount of new metal mined from the ground to a minimum, by finding ways to make high quality parts and materials from metal that has already been used at least once.”
“For example, in the UK alone we send around 300,000 tonnes of aluminium to landfill every year. That is a direct economic loss of nearly £800 million and represents a further loss of around 11 million barrels of oil, representing the energy used to make that amount of aluminium. Clearly, there are many environmental and economic benefits to be gained from reusing that material.”
One project that will be pursued in the AMCC is the replacement of the hundreds of registered aluminium alloys currently in commercial use with just over 10 highly versatile alloys that can be used over and over again.
Another is to develop a set of very efficient techniques for purifying and conditioning liquid metal into reliable industrial processes, that can be used to make high quality castings for cars and other applications.
“Every failed casting represents a huge waste of energy, time and money,” said Professor Fan. “We know that our new techniques can reliably create first class components from recycled metal. Our challenge now is to scale these methods up for commercial use and to show that they can reduce cost, improve quality, and conserve natural resources.”
The basis for these new techniques is a change in emphasis for the study of metal solidification. The traditional approach has been to look at the process of crystal growth as metal cools, but this has been replaced with a focus on nucleation, the effect that tiny impurities in the metal have on the process of solidification.
By controlling the interface at a microscopic level between the liquid metal and the impurity particles, the characteristics of the solidified metal casting can be manipulated to produce the required properties. The aim is to produce materials and components with fine and uniform microstructure, uniform chemical composition and reduced or eliminated cast defects.
The AMCC will be housed in a purpose-built 1000m3 laboratory on Brunel’s campus in west London, with industrial partners, including Constellium, providing funding as well sponsoring Research Fellows and providing technical support. The Centre will initially serve the automotive industry, but the longer term aim is to extend its knowledge to other engineering sectors, including aerospace, defence, electronics and the general engineering sector.
Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: "For Britain to get ahead in the global race we have to back emerging technologies and ensure our universities have the latest equipment. This capital investment will help scientists make new discoveries and take their research through to commercial success. It will drive growth and support the Government’s industrial strategy."