Boost for steel - £7 million for "virtual factory" will speed up alloy development

Developing and testing new steel alloys will be up to 100 times faster, allowing new products to reach the market more quickly, thanks to £7 million of funding announced today for a new “virtual factory” being developed by Swansea University, in partnership with Tata Steel and WMG, at the University of Warwick.

Steel is the most widely used structural material in the world.  It is at the heart of major manufacturing sectors such as the car industry, construction, packaging and defence.  It is indispensable for national infrastructure such as transport, communications and energy, and for high-tech 21st century industries, from energy-positive buildings to wind turbines and electric vehicles.

In the modern steel industry innovation is crucial to keep pace with changing technologies and customer requirements. 

The problem, however, is that developing new steel alloys can currently be a very slow process, with lots of different stages.  It requires expensive trials on hundreds of tonnes of material, much of which has to be remade into new steel products.

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Picture: chemical analysis of steel - Dr James McGettrick of Swansea University, with an X-ray Photoelectron Spectrometer. This analyses the extra nanolayers which are added on top of steel, for example to improve adhesion or resistance to corrosion; this is crucial as steel is used in everything from buildings and cars to food packaging. 

Swansea University, Tata Steel and WMG, at the University of Warwick, which have a long history of collaboration on steel research, have won funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), through the Prosperity Partnership initiative, to tackle this problem

Their solution is to combine physical testing and computational modelling to rapidly assess hundreds of small-scale samples, covering areas such as strength, electrical and mechanical properties, as well as durability and resistance to corrosion. 

Test data can be fed into computational models, further refining their accuracy allowing for better and better predictions on the final material properties. Alloys which show promise can then be investigated at a larger scale and in more detail.   

The process is called Rapid Alloy Prototyping.  It has been under development at the MACH1 labs at Swansea University and the ASRC at Warwick.   Effectively, it means that much of the testing can be carried out in research labs and imaging suites - a virtual factory – rather than in an actual steel plant.    

The difference this new approach will make is enormous:

  • 100 samples can be tested in the time it currently takes to test one
  • Samples can be tiny – only a few grams – whereas current testing can require up to 900 tonnes of material, up to 98% of which has to be remade into new steel products at a cost to the business
  • In overall terms, it means newer and better steel products can be made ready for customers far more quickly
  • New steels are needed for more fuel efficient cars, plastic free packaging, energy positive buildings and many other applications. This will allow users of steel to drive innovation with market need.

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Picture:  Steel seen at the nano scale: new steels are being developed which are strengthened by tiny nano-level structures that are the same length as a human fingernail grows in 1 second.  These are being used to make a new generation of lighter and more efficient cars (Credit: Advanced Imaging of Materials/Swansea University).

This new approach is only possible because of the involvement of all three organisations in the project, and support from the EPSRC through their  Prosperity Partnership initiative.  Working together they can offer the combination of expertise, equipment and knowledge of the market which can make the project a success.

Professor Steve Brown of Swansea University College of Engineering said:

“Innovation is at the heart of the 21st century steel industry.  This project is a huge boost for innovation as it massively speeds up the development of new alloys.  It means steel producers can deliver new and better products to their customers far more quickly.

We have world-class facilities and research expertise here at Swansea, and strong links with Tata Steel and WMG at the University of Warwick.  So I am confident this partnership will help ensure our steel industry remains at the cutting edge of innovation.”  

Martin Brunnock, Tata Steel’s UK Technical Director, said:  

“This innovative project will help us to accelerate the process of developing exciting new steels for our customers which give them a competitive edge.

"Steel is playing an essential role in helping to solve major societal challenges such as the transition to sustainable energy and mobility, and it’s vital we can keep pace through the faster development of innovative steel products.”

Professor Claire Davis of WMG at Warwick University, said:

“This project provides an exciting opportunity to accelerate the translation of innovative steel chemistry and process improvements into the steel industry. We’ll be able to explore the opportunities for increasing steel scrap levels in new steel production, contributing to the circular economy in the UK.

It is an exciting time for researchers in steel as the rapid alloy processing facilities will allow us to trial new chemistries and process routes quickly to make recommendations for industrial take up.”

600 x 411Picture: 21st century steel in use: the Active Office and Classroom at Swansea University are energy-positive buildings that generate, store and release their own power, clad in a Tata Steel product that draws in air for heating. (Credit: SPECIFIC IKC 

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Find out more about Swansea University's work on 21st century steel