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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Materials & technologies projects > Meltspun aluminium spins off into products
Graphic element Meltspun aluminium spins off into products
    13-06-2000
 

A small company in Rotterdam was developing a spin-off from university research: a technique for making aluminium alloys that was superior in many ways to conventional alloys. But how could it be exploited on an industrial scale and what sort of products could it be used for? Two short years of CRAFT support saw the production problem solved and the alloys appearing in prototype automotive accessories, engines, ladders, sporting equipment, camcorders and even dies for making Coca-Cola bottles. Now the company is building a full scale production plant that will be the first of its type in the world, ready to take on a market running into many hundreds of millions of euro.

New ideas flourish in small companies, everyone agrees, but how can a small company surmount the final hurdle of turning its idea into a product that will sell?

Rapidly solidified aluminium

One such company is RSP Products, which was set up in 1993 to exploit the technique of 'melt-spinning' developed by the Technical University of Delft. Molten aluminium alloy at around 800°C is poured in a narrow stream onto a water-cooled copper wheel. The aluminium solidifies almost instantly and as the wheel spins it throws off a thin ribbon of metal which is then chopped up into flakes. Because of the rapid cooling, the crystals in the metal are very small, and this gives it a smooth and uniform structure. It is known as rapidly solidified aluminium, or RSA.

"Work on RSA had been going on in Delft since the late 1970s, originally as a way of recycling automotive scrap," explains Dr Fred Dom of RSP Products. "But it turned out that you can also use this technology for making very interesting alloys for high-tech applications." Given a suitable choice of ingredients, RSA alloys can be made stronger, more ductile, smoother and harder wearing than conventional aluminium alloys. They also have better electrical, thermal and machining properties. So why was not everyone using them?

Compacting flakes into billets

The problem was getting the RSA into a form that industry could use. What was needed was some way of compacting the flakes into a billet, a dense bar about half a metre long and up to 25 centimetres in diameter. "Once you have a billet you can go to the aluminium extrusion companies who have very big and powerful presses," Dr Dom explains. "They can press these billets into profiles like a tube or a rectangular shape or whatever you like. We realised that we had to do some research and development to get the flakes into a billet."

A second concern was that RSA was not an end product. "You need products and applications and we saw that our potential customers are located throughout Europe and indeed the world," says Dr Dom. "So the best way to develop things was in co-operation with potential end users."

Dr Dom assembled a group of firms making aluminium products and together they made a CRAFT proposal. The objectives were to find out how to make billets and how to use those billets to make products.

  Ladders, towbars and pistons

The work on compaction was carried out by the technical universities of Delft and Eindhoven. Van Megen Metaalconstructies built the engineering prototypes.
With RSA available as billets, Dutch company Wienese Klimmaterialen used it to make improved ladders for fire fighting. Transfer Trade Belgium exploited the stiffness and strength of RSA to make camcorder mountings. Bosal made detachable towbars for cars. German engineers Heggemann made RSA pistons and connecting rods for go-kart engines. DMM Engineering in Wales used RSA alloys in lightweight mountaineering equipment.

HAWO Metaalbewerking made high-pressure dies for forming plastic products. "The dies are made of aluminium and as we have a very fine microstructure we are able to polish our aluminium alloys into very smooth surfaces and that's important for dies," Dr Dom continues. "So they did some tests with dies for Coca-Cola bottles and achieved good results."

So encouraging were the early trials that RSP Products is now scaling up its production. A new plant near Groningen is expected to be operational by the end of the year. "This is definitely an important spin-off from this CRAFT project," Dr Dom says. "We saw that there is a big potential in terms of applications and markets, but you need to have quite a big production facility to be able to supply these customers."

  Huge market for lightweight, strong alloys

He forecasts that the first commercial successes will be in the market for pistons. They are working with Heggemann to develop diesel engine pistons which have a potential market running into many hundreds of millions of euro. Other products will take more time to reach the market, but there are numerous specialist applications for lightweight, strong alloys.

"There are so many possibilities with this technology," he says. "We are now focusing on aluminium alloys but in the future we could also go for special copper, zinc or magnesium alloys. It's really a huge, huge market."
The other CRAFT partners will also benefit, in that RSP has agreed for a limited period not to supply alloys to their direct competitors.

For the time being, Dr Dom's company has the market to itself. "Some US companies did meltspinning in the past, but they all gave up because the market was not ready and they were not able to manufacture products on a large scale," he explains. "We have developed this process so you can produce it in a three-shift operation, 24 hours a day, and that is what other companies have not achieved.""

European funding played a very important role in getting closer to the market, Dr Dom stresses. "CRAFT was one of the last steps we had to take to turn our technology into a success, and if you're not able to make that last step you've lost everything," he says. When you develop a new material it is very difficult to turn it into products and you need assistance from universities. A CRAFT project is a great way to do it."

   
Rapidly solidified aluminium
Compacting flakes into billets
Ladders, towbars and pistons
Huge market for lightweight, strong alloys
   

Key data

Development of improved materials is part of the New materials and production technologies generic action. A CRAFT project on meltspun aluminium has helped turn the results of university research into a commercial process offering the potential for the production of high quality aluminium and other lightweight, strong alloys

Project: Industrial implementation of meltspun aluminium into high grade finished products (BRST-CT96-5043)

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