The UK’s metal casting industry has agreed a £77m boost to its attempt to bring new techniques and technology to the factory floor.
The government has awarded Brunel University £15m award to unlock a further £62m of private sector funding that will support the second phase of the university’s new Advanced Metal Casting Centre (AMCC).
The centre aims to help commercialise research into casting that has until now failed to change industry practice but that could increase the competitiveness of casting for UK manufacturing in sectors including automotive, aerospace and energy.
The new funding will complete the AMCC’s essential range of factory-level metal casting/processing facilities and establish critical supporting research facilities for developing advanced metallic materials, as well as underpin component performance testing and create a suite for process modelling and simulation.
Led by Professor Zhongyun Fan, research will focus on nucleation, liquid metal engineering, the development of advanced materials and more efficient casting/processing technologies.
The AMCC’s aims are similar to those of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, which brings together universities and companies to scale-up processes and innovations from the academic research level.
The centre’s funders agreed there is compelling evidence that the casting industry has neither been able to conduct high-level research and development by itself nor has it been previously supported by adequate academic research in UK universities.
Current research aims include finding a way to replace 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 Fan at the time of the centre’s launch in 2013. “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.
In the long-term, the centre aims to establish a National Metals Research Park on Brunel’s campus to further accelerate the industrial take-up of new technologies.