The University of Manchester (UK) has been awarded £5.98 million (US$10.6 million) to develop a new class of light alloy solutions for use in aircraft, trains and automobiles.
The grant, which will span a five-year period, has been awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under the Portfolio Partnership Scheme. EPSRC is the UK Government’s leading funding agency for research and training in engineering and the physical sciences.
Research partners in improving the performance of light alloys include Alcan, Novelis, BAE Systems, Airbus, MEL and Jaguar.
The project—Light Alloys for Environmentally Sustainable Transport—will be the largest of its kind in the UK with plans for more than fifty research staff over the next five years.
It will focus on developing new methods for the processing, forming, joining and surface engineering of aluminium, titanium and magnesium. The aim is to develop new engineering processes which will enable aircraft and car manufacturers to design and build lighter, more environmentally-friendly vehicles using these materials.
These materials are exceptionally difficult to form into complex shapes or weld, which dramatically limits their use in the design and manufacture of air, land and sea vessels.
This is a major issue for the automotive and aerospace industries that are under increasing pressure to save fuel and reduce pollution. If we can improve processes such as the welding of aluminium panels then they will be able to build much lighter aircraft and cars, saving on fuel and emissions.—Professor George Thompson, project head
Research will focus on four main areas of joining, forming, microstructure and surface modification, and will address major issues such as the use of anti-corrosive chromate coatings in the aerospace industry which have a significant impact on the environment.
In a related area, EPSRC is also funding work on a new manufacturing process that can produce metal lattice-like components that replace conventional solid-mteal components.
The new parts have a tiny lattice-like structure, similar to scaffolding but with poles twice the diameter of a human hair, making them ultra-light. Because loads are channelled along the poles, the parts can comprise up to 70% air while remaining strong enough to perform correctly.
The components could replace solid metal in integrated circuits, automotive applications and many other fields of engineering. Aircraft parts, for example, could be produced that are over 50% lighter than conventional alternatives. The reduction in aircraft weight would cut fuel requirements, bringing down the cost of air travel and reducing the emissions produced by the combustion of aviation fuels that are a major contributor to climate change.
With EPSRC support, tngineers at the University of Liverpool, in collaboration with MCP (Mining and Chemical Products) Ltd, are developing the first commercial-scale system for the rapid manufacture of these new-generation metal components.
Based on a technique known as selective laser melting (SLM), this fully automated system builds up components, layer by layer, from fine metal powders using an infra-red laser beam to melt the powders into the required structure. Layers can be as thin as 25 microns, making it possible to produce complex parts in which thermal, impact-absorption and many other properties can be distributed in specific places to meet the requirements of particular applications.
The new manufacturing system, which represents a highly innovative approach to the production of metal components, is due to be in full commercial use next year. The team is already working on a larger version which should be ready for commissioning in around 18 months.
(A hat-tip to David Jamroga!)