Magnesium opportunities

The drive to make vehicles lighter has been a particular factor stimulating the increased use of magnesium in countries such as the US and, in Europe, Germany, Austria and Italy.

But others, such as the UK, have lagged behind as concerns about costs and the material’s susceptibility to corrosion have inhibited design engineers from specifying magnesium-based materials in vehicles. So is it time for the UK industry to take a fresh look at what magnesium offers?

Could the material help provide a solution to some of the most pressing challenges facing vehicle designers and builders today?

Finding the answers to these and similar questions was the objective of a DTI Global Watch Mission to Germany, Austria and Italy, co-ordinated by the Faraday Advance partnership in automotive and aerospace materials.

<b>Advantages</b>

‘The message has to be, open your mind to magnesium,’ states Martin Kemp, DTI International Technology Promoter for Performance Engineering in Europe, who was a member of the mission. He points out that even at the most straightforward level – that of weight saving – magnesium offers some impressive advantages. A magnesium component might be able to offer a weight reduction of as much as 50% in comparison with a steel counterpart and of 30% compared with aluminium.

But magnesium offers more than just light weight. Modern casting techniques now enable the production of complex single piece magnesium alloy components at rates high enough to support volume manufacturing.

The mission found that considerable further research into casting techniques is taking place in the countries visited, as well as into processes for the production of magnesium in sheet and extruded forms. Joining techniques and protective coatings are also on the agenda, with equal attention being given to costs as performance characteristics.

<b>Contrasts</b>

The scale of magnesium research in the countries visited compared with the UK is in some cases precisely, if dismayingly, quantifiable. In Germany, for instance, there are 26 research centres specialising in magnesium applications. In the UK there are just two.

This high level of activity in Germany – supported by government funding estimated at £35m over the last five years – has mainly been stimulated by interest from the automotive industry. Austria also has an interest in light alloys, centred around the Ranshofen region, and the research centre at LKR is collaborating with German organisations on a number of key projects.

Such collaboration is a characteristic of the current European R&D scene and is exemplified by seven major EU magnesium projects, receiving a total of £17.5m, such as Mg-Engine, Mg-Chassis and Nano-Mag. Encouragingly, the mission team received a good response to their presentations on UK-based technologies such as the novel rheo-diecasting process developed at Brunel University (Zyomax Ltd), the Keronite surface treatment process, and high pressure diecasting which they hope will stimulate future links.

<b>Applications</b>

The mission confirmed that real applications of magnesium alloys are already an established fact. The Porsche Boxster sports car, for instance, includes 9.9 kg of magnesium components, while the Volkswagen Passat and Audi A4 and A6vehicles have between 13.5-14.5 kg of the material.

The Fiat Group in Italy is a major user of magnesium components and its Meridian plant, visited during the mission, exhibited a high capacity for supplying certain components to the Italian and other markets such as the UK.

The showcase project for magnesium – the BMW 6 cylinder engine block – was presented to the mission team at BMW. A joint development project between BMW Landshut, Rauch and Noranda, the hybrid magnesium AJ62 and aluminium block shows a reduction in mass over aluminium of 25%.

The team was also interested in a project presented by RWTH Aachen which included magnesium foam prosthetic pins being developed to pin broken bones and then be absorbed by the body by new bone growth. The biomedical field may be a particularly productive area for future collaboration given UK strengths in prosthetics and biomedical implants.

Unsurprisingly, the mission team is emphatic that the UK must start to take some active steps to ensure that it benefits from the diverse opportunities magnesium can provide. One of the missionreport’s key recommendations will be that a ‘Magnesium network’is set up to support the UK’s magnesium supply base andknowledge institutes.

<b>Solutions</b>

Some elements that could make up the network already exist. In Manchester, for example, Magnesium Elektron Limited (MEL) is a well-established supplier of magnesium alloys. Tim Wilks, the company’s Technical Manager, was a participant in the mission and is keen to stress that the combination of modern magnesium materials with appropriate design practice can provide highly effective and robust solutions.

‘There are now surface treatments for magnesium’, he says, ‘that can very effectively counteract the corrosion that might once have been encountered in, say, a marine environment.’

<b>Simplification</b>

A major area of opportunity, though, lies in the use of magnesium alloys for the manufacture of complex parts that might otherwise require multiple components. Tim Wilks cites as an example an automotive Instrument Panel Beam (IPB). In a conventional car this would be fabricated from several different steel stampings, but a magnesium equivalent could be manufactured as a single casting. This simplified manufacturing procedure would also morethan offset any increase in raw materials costs. Moreover all these advantages are equally applicable in other sectors.

As Tim Wilks concludes: ‘There are a huge number of opportunities for product designers to exploit through the use of magnesium alloys.’

To find out more about performance engineering collaboration opportunities in Europe, please contact Martin Kemp, DTI International Technology Promoter at martin.kemp@pera.com.

<b>This article has been reprinted from Global Watch, the monthly magazine of the DTI Global Watch Service. For further information, please click <link>Globalwatchonline=http://www.globalwatchonline.com</link>.</b>