Steel production is a huge industry. Around 1607 megatonnes of steel are produced every year worldwide for use in many sectors including construction, oil and gas, power generation and the automotive industry. Production of steel is based on one of the oldest technologies - reducing iron ore to iron - and the process is constantly being developed to give improved performance and reduced energy consumption. Steel is involved in every aspect of our modern lives – from food production and transport to something as simple as brushing your teeth (steel is used to make moulds for toothbrushes). The wide-ranging applications of steel and the constant developments in performance achieved by industry and academic researchers inspire me every day in my work!
In steel research we always strive for improved performance. Although steel does not often make the headlines, there is still much being done and much yet to be done. Our research at Birmingham has two main streams. The first is to develop new steels and to improve steel properties for industrial impact. The second, perhaps less well-known is to improve the production processes so as to reduce the amount of energy required to produce the material. Environmental concerns are a huge driver - in the past 30 years, for instance, the amount of energy required to produce a tonne of steel has halved.
One of my research projects, a European collaboration, is to use electromagnetic and ultrasonic sensors to monitor steel during processing. It is important to develop an understanding of the sensor signal and its relation to the steel microstructure, as this is what controls the final product properties. Improved properties through better processing can lead to performance enhancement in cars, for example where higher strength strip steel can be used to reduce the car’s body weight. Research is international and production companies as well as end users tend to be large multinational companies willing to invest in research and development. Earlier this year, I travelled to India to work with Tata Steel in the “steel city” of Jamshedpur, along with India’s National Metallurgical Laboratory, and to begin a new UK-India funded project, developing sensor systems to assess the microscopic structure of steel.
Although novel materials like graphene may generate greater immediate excitement about their potential, the sheer scale of the steel industry still dwarfs new technologies. This is one of the reasons I find this area of research so exciting. From understanding the fundamental science through to developing new steels or inspection systems, I feel my research makes a difference!
Professor Claire Davis is Professor of Ferrous Metallurgy in the School of Metallurgy and Materials