Ambitious goals drive innovation in alloys, scrap reclamation

Metals are remarkable materials – malleable, strong, durable and infinitely recyclable. But despite those circular properties, the production of metals faces multifaceted challenges that put pressure on the environment and the economy.

It’s a problem that has been top of mind for the researchers who specialise in metals and advanced alloys at the Institute for Frontier Materials.

The group, led by Alfred Deakin Professor Matthew Barnett, wants to unlock the potential of metals to develop longer-lasting, energy-saving alloys. Prof. Barnett also wants his team to develop new approaches to reclaim the scrap metal that already exists – which has enormous potential for Australia’s sovereign capabilities.

‘End-of-life-recycling rates can approach 85%, however the global dollar losses of un-recycled metals amount to over $40 billion per year,’ he says.

‘In addition to our enormous exports of ore, last year Australia exported stainless-steel and aluminium scrap to the value of nearly $1 billion. This is a lost resource that represents significant opportunity to add value locally and shore up vulnerable supply chains.’

And Prof. Barnett says it’s not only a lost economic opportunity.

‘It’s worse than that,’ he says. ‘The market value of a material scales almost linearly with the energy required to make it.

‘So, this is also lost energy. Efforts to reclaim alloys lost to the economy can save on energy as well as landfill.’

New paradigms for alloy science

Prof. Barnett is considered a world leader for his contributions to alloy development in sheet steel research, light metals development, alloy characterisation and alloy performance.

In 2021, he was awarded a highly competitive and prestigious Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship, which provided almost $3 million in funding to explore his idea of ‘Alloy alchemy: New paradigms in alloy science to promote a circular economy’. Ultimately, Prof. Barnett hopes to produce new ways to tap into the scrap metal market by developing alloys that better serve society across three measures: economic, environmental and social.

The Laureate Fellowship, which started in 2022, is only one part of his group’s wider research focus.

‘In 2022, the team delivered new coatings that extended life in the mining sector, developed aluminium compositions that promise to reduce the weight of overhead high-tension power cables and furthered concepts in mass-produced modular housing that is readily repurposed at end of life,’ Prof. Barnett says.

‘Our team is developing longer-lasting alloys – to keep value in the economy longer – and developing new approaches to reclaim lost scrap metal, while pushing down energy consumption during processing. The team is also creating solutions that make recycling easier.’

Research to accelerate innovation

In one such project, the research team, led by Professor Daniel Fabijanic, worked with Callidus Welding Solutions to develop a novel coating system that improves the lifetime of seated ball valves used in the critical mineral industry. The valves play a key role in the hydrometallurgy production of critical minerals such as nickel, cobalt and gold, and are exposed to significant wear and tear because of the high-temperature, high-pressure, corrosive and erosive environment contained within. IFM’s novel coating system fuses the coating onto the dominant surface alloy of the valve to improve its lifespan and efficiency.

The team has also partnered with FormFlow, a Geelong-based start-up that developed a unique corrugated steel bending process. IFM research, led by Dr Matthias Weiss, helped FormFlow create a 2D laser system that monitors the cross-sectional shape of corrugated sheets before and after bending for continuous quality control. They also designed an Industry 4.0 manufacturing cell capable of producing a corrugated corner bend from a flat sheet of steel.

The collaboration has contributed to FormFlow’s expansion to FormFlow Living – a business that designs, develops and manufactures high-value, affordable modular housing using innovative building systems.

However, the team’s work in metals manufacturing to date has only scratched the surface.

‘The coming year will see the team combine efforts in a bid for a centre in “alloys of net zero”, creating a synergy between efforts to prolong material life, increase recyclability and improve alloys for renewable energy applications,’ Prof. Barnett says.

‘The year will also see the group launch fastAlloy, an integrated rapid prototyping lab.’

This article first appeared in the 2022 IFM Annual Report.