Casting: art to aerospace

Professor Nick Green (right) with support from his research technician (left) carries out a casting process at his Inaugural Lecture

Everything Professor Nick Green has done professionally since completing his PhD in metallurgy 25 years ago has revolved around how to make things – whether doing research into fashioning better or novel items or working in industry and applying that research. More recently, as Director of the University’s High Temperature Research Centre (HTRC) – the first and only facility of its kind in the UK – he has been able to do both in tandem.

‘Making things using complex metallurgy is what makes me tick,’ says Nick, who is Professor of Manufacturing Technology. ‘I like the strong links between academic research and its application into manufactured goods. The tactile handling of the finished item is extremely motivating.’

When he gave his recent Inaugural Lecture, Nick wanted his audience to get a feel for his passion for making things, more specifically making things using the 6,000-year-old manufacturing process of casting – so he devised several experiments he could demonstrate. But one of the wackier ones – constructing a chocolate turbine blade – proved too much of a time challenge to fit into the lecture, so Nick had to conduct it in his kitchen at home over several days and present it to the audience via a series of photographs.

‘What I was demonstrating was the sequence of activities involved in making an investment cast turbine blade using materials available in a normal domestic kitchen,’ he explains. ‘It required me to make an analogue system of the one we use at the HTRC. So, I wound up using clarified butter, egg white, caster sugar, desiccated coconut and cocoa butter chocolate. The butter replicated the waxes we use, egg white and the caster sugar represented the ceramic slurry and the desiccated coconut was the sand that we use when we are making a mould. The ambition was to produce the world’s most useless investment cast item, less serviceable than a chocolate teapot, and I think I succeeded – we ended up with a lovely chocolate turbine blade!’

Nick’s address, entitled ‘Casting: art to aerospace’, was part of a series of Inaugural Lectures run by the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences to showcase its leading scientists who are pushing the boundaries in their disciplines. These events, which are open to the public and free of charge, mark an academic’s promotion to Professor, but also provide a rare opportunity to hear first-hand about their life and research.

‘I wanted to use the lecture to talk about the scientific challenges that make me tick and have done so over the years; particularly those from which I’ve derived scientific insights.’

Nick has been at Birmingham – apart from two successful spells in industry – since 1992, when he took up a position as a Research Fellow after completing his PhD at Cambridge. In 2005, he was promoted to the EPSRC-sponsored Star Chair in Casting Technology at the University and was appointed co-director of the Casting Partnership with Rolls-Royce.  

‘I was very fortunate to come to Birmingham to start my career as a post-doc, because I ended up working for one of the best guys in the world at casting – Professor John Campbell, who was the previous Chair of Casting Technology.’

For the past three years, Nick has headed up the HTRC one of the University’s most exciting and pioneering enterprises and a major collaboration with Rolls-Royce. Dual-located at Ansty Park, Coventry and the University’s Edgbaston campus, it is a unique casting, design, simulation and advanced manufacturing research facility.

For Nick, the fusion of academic research and industrial application is the perfect professional scenario. He now leads major research projects encompassing materials characterisation, advanced casting process modelling and manufacturing technologies for next-generation aero-engine turbine components. The self-contained research foundry, with its state-of-the-art equipment and instrumentation, enables production-scale research and experimentation to deliver rapid, high-quality product and process innovation.

Since it started operating, the HTRC’s multi-disciplinary teams have made significant progress in the development of future-generation aero-engines: in a short space of time, researchers have made great advances towards halving the typical lead time of the design and manufacturing of key turbine components.

‘The technology we have now has enabled a fantastic evolution of a process that goes back to Egyptian times and reaches back to ancient Greece as well,’ comments Nick. ‘Everyone owns something that’s been made using the casting process, and some nine out of ten manufactured goods contain at least one casting.

‘The attraction of the HTRC is that it is involved in delivering research into outcomes, as well as the fundamental aspects of research. It is the ideal scenario for me because it gives me a foot in both camps – academia and industry – and allows me to work in an unparalleled research facility, doing exciting research, with what is probably an unparalleled team. Typically, we now have 85 people working each day at Ansty. You can measure the growth of the centre in the size of the milk order to the kitchen!’