Mars exploration imaging technique spawns steel defect detection

A laser technique developed to explore features on bodies in space is proving its worth in improving the efficiency of steelmaking

A group of UK companies and institutions with ties to the space industry has developed a technique for detecting defects in cast steel which could improve efficiency in all types of steelmaking. The process, which uses lasers, operates continuously and could help reduce manufacturing costs and the amount of material sent to scrap, the team claims.

steel casting
The laser technique can detect defects on the surface of cast steel at around 1000°C

The space connection to the process is that it is based on techniques originally developed to analyse features on the surface of Mars.

The developing consortium includes the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), which is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, along with Tata Steel, MPI, Innovative Small Instruments and the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London, who were working as part of the two-year HTP-Control project funded by InnovateUK.

The process, which uses digital image analysis and is non-destructive, operates at temperatures around 800°C, making it suitable for the environment of a steelworks, and detects cracks and defects in hot-cast steel, the type which is produced in rolling-mills for processing into sheets, tubes and bars. Defects can occur at a number of points in the production process, leading to formation of pinholes and cracks that ruin the strength of the material and tend to lead to product rejection and remelting, increasing the steelworks’ energy usage. It could also potentially be used in glassmaking, ceramics, titanium and other metal alloy casting processes.

Tata has installed a pilot version of the technology at its Scunthorpe steelworks for evaluation. “We are delighted with the outcome of the HTP-Control project, a true collaboration where the individual partners have benefited enormously through the bringing together of the whole innovation value chain, from world class research to technology innovation through to industry drive,” commented Prof Jan-Peter Muller, head of imaging at the Mullard Lab “The project has demonstrated true ‘spin-off’ by taking technology that was previously used in the space sector for Mars exploration and applying it to the manufacture of steel. The technology developments achieved are significant for the UK and should benefit a number of high value manufacturing sectors.”

Neville Slack, programme manager at CPI, comented: “The project has been of great benefit to CPI and has provided the opportunity to apply these novel defect detection techniques in a number of new projects and also across a range of industries. One example is our continuing collaboration with IS Instruments within other projects and specifically the development of on-line Raman Spectroscopy within the Process Industry.’