ESA launches €1bn project to create next generation metals

Lighter vehicles, stronger nuclear reactors and more compatible medical implants are among the goals of a new billion-euro European Space Agency metals project.

The seven-year international research and development programme known as Metallurgy Europe aims to develop new types of metals and manufacturing techniques and create at least 100,000 jobs by involving hundreds of research organisation and companies across the continent.

‘We’ll be laying the technical foundations for the discovery of new materials – metallic compounds, alloys, composites, superconductors and semiconductors,’ said Prof David Jarvis, head of strategic and emerging technologies at ESA and chairman of Metallurgy Europe.

‘We’ll also be applying computer modelling to guide our alloy creation, as well as advanced manufacturing techniques, such as additive manufacturing or 3D printing, for the creation of new products.’

Organised along 13 topics, the potential results include novel heat-resistant alloys for space and nuclear systems, high-efficiency power lines based on superconducting alloys, thermoelectric materials converting waste heat into power, new catalysts for the production of plastics and pharmaceuticals, bio-compatible metals for medical implants, as well as high-strength magnetic systems.

ESA would be particularly interested in lightweight alloys and composites that could potentially slash the weight of spacecraft components, as well as reduce the mass of a typical car by more than half.

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Additive manufacturing with new metals could help change aerospace structures.

‘The periodic table gives us around 60 commercial metal elements,’ said Jarvis. ‘In the world of materials it’s the mixing of these different chemical elements that is vital to us: we hardly use pure metals but we do use compounds, alloys and composites.

‘You’ve got those 60 elements and you can mix them in so many different ways. The actual number of combinations and ratios of mixing elements is infinite – we’ve only really scratched the surface.’

The various branches of the metals-related industry today accounts for 46% of the EU’s manufacturing value and 11% of its total gross domestic product – equivalent to €1.3tr (£1tr) annually or €3.5bn (£2.8bn) daily.

More than 180 industrial partners have signed up, including some of the largest engineering companies in Europe such as Airbus Group, BP, Siemens, Rolls-Royce, Thales, BAE Systems, Philips, Linde Group, Johnson Matthey and Tata Steel, as well as many small and medium-sized firms.

The projects making up the programme will begin next year, although preparatory work has already begun. ‘The amount of money invested and the size of our support network makes us the largest consortium of its type in metallic materials and advanced manufacturing,’ said Jarvis. ‘It stands us in good stead to be the front runner in this field for quite some time.’