Brunel casting centre aims to improve metal recyclability

Brunel University is to establish an Advanced Metal Casting Centre (AMCC), a £14m facility designed to translate laboratory ideas into industrial processes.

The AMCC is jointly funded by EPSRC, Constellium, an aluminium automotive sheet and extrusions solutions provider, Brunel, and a major luxury car manufacturer.

The new facility will draw on the work done by Prof Zhongyun Fan and his team at the Brunel Centre for Advanced Solidification Technology (BCAST) to improve the recyclability of metals.

‘Our long term aim 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.’ said Prof Fan in a statement.

‘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 £800m 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 repeatedly.

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 Prof 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.

The investment in Brunel forms part of £85m worth of funding announced on July 17, 2013 to advance robotics and autonomous systems, advanced materials, and grid-scale energy storage solutions.