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Light metals shape the future of flight02 October 2012
Very light, very strong new metals and emerging manufacturing processes are set to usher in a new era of aerospace technology.
Deep within the labyrinth of Monash University's Clayton campus in Melbourne is a metallurgy laboratory so significant in what it is doing that it has attracted some of the biggest companies in the global aerospace industry from the other side of the world.
They are keeping close to the technology that could make this laboratory the genesis of the next generation of aerospace manufacturing. They are also keeping close to a scientist in whose hands their futures may well sit.
When Professor Xinhua Wu, recognised internationally as a leader in advanced light metals research, agreed to head the Australian Research Council's (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Design in Light Metals, her research moved with her from the UK to Melbourne. Such is the importance placed on her work that the giants of European aerospace – Bombardier, Airbus, European Space Agency and SAFRAN-Microturbo – followed.
At stake for these European aircraft manufacturers is finding the technological means to ward off increasingly aggressive competition from new manufacturers in Brazil, Canada, China, India and Russia, while concurrently meeting stringent greenhouse reduction targets imposed by the European Union.
Manufacturers are looking for new materials that are lighter yet stronger, cheaper to manufacture, reliably safe and which will also help them halve aviation's overall carbon emissions by 2050.
For Professor Wu and her centre it means changing the very nature of metals such as titanium, aluminium and magnesium, modifying their fine-scale structures to give them new and improved characteristics. It requires advanced industrial research underpinned by fundamental science that is exploring new paradigms in metals and their properties.
A spokesperson for SAFRAN-Microturbo said the company followed Professor Wu to Australia because of her focus on the industrial applicability of fundamental research. This is a critical industry–academia link and for the European Union companies, an essential relationship through which to keep ahead of rivals.
One of the centre's projects is a new aluminium alloy that will make an aircraft 30 to 40 per cent lighter, twice as fuel-efficient and still structurally as strong.
It is already known this can be achieved by adding a tiny amount of a rare element such as scandium to the aluminium when it is alloyed. Just a fraction of a per cent of scandium or other rare earth element is enough to make aluminium stronger, less prone to corrosion and easier to weld. Russia used such an aluminium-scandium alloy for its MiG fighter planes during the Cold War era. But from a commercial perspective, the alloy is prohibitively expensive.
The scientific challenge that Professor Wu's centre has taken on is to determine how scandium works when added to aluminium alloys, and to then find a cheaper substitute.
"We are working at the atomic level. In metallurgy, just a few atoms in a million added to an alloy can influence engineering at the macro-scale; how we control the homogeneity of metal sheeting when it is rolled, or the integrity of the metal when it is fabricated into a component."
However, Professor Wu says the key factor with such industrial research is achieving this economically. "From just a materials research perspective, without worrying about costs, we can make the most wonderful metal and alloy materials. But the goal is not just to develop stronger, lighter, more durable and more stable metals. They must also be produced through more efficient and cheaper manufacturing with lower energy consumption, both during construction and during the aircraft's operational life over 25 or more years. We have to create new materials that not only have the best performance but are also the cheapest.
Read the full article and find out more about other research breakthroughs in the MONASH: Delivering Impact online edition.