New Research Network May Lead to Smarter, Greener, and Cleaner Steel Industry

Thanks to a newly announced £35 million research network, a smart, clean, and green steel industry may soon become a reality.

Researcher Dr Rachel Woods with a steel sheet on the production line at SPECIFIC, which develops "Active Buildings" that generate, store and release their own solar energy. SPECIFIC is an academic and industrial consortium led by Swansea University with Akzo Nobel, NSG Pilkington, Tata Steel and Cardiff University as strategic partners. (Image credit: Swansea University)

The new research network will foster collaboration between university experts and steelmakers, who will work together on a seven-year research program to revolutionize the UK steel industry.

Known as SUSTAIN, the network is headed by Swansea University, in association with the University of Sheffield and the University of Warwick, and involves over 20 partners across the UK steel sector, including research organizations, academic experts¸ companies, and trade bodies. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council have invested £10 million to support the network, which will become one of their Future Manufacturing Research Hubs.

For the first time, the landmark announcement allows representatives from the manufacturing sector and the UK steel producers to line up behind a co-ordinated research program. It also happens to be the biggest single investment ever made in steel research by a UK research council. The strategy is that SUSTAIN will act as a seed from which relatively wider studies and breakthroughs will emerge, drawing upon the expertise across UK academia and beyond.

The objective of SUSTAIN is to redefine the entire steel supply chain, rendering it smarter, cleaner, and greener, and also more responsive to the rapidly changing requirements of customers. SUSTAIN’s work will be focused on two areas:

  • Smart steel processing: Steelmaking—similar to any 21st-century industry—involves huge amounts of data. Innovative ways will be developed by SUSTAIN to acquire and use this data in novel metallurgical processes, which can subsequently provide customized high-tech products.
  • Zero waste iron and steelmaking, with the objective of making the industry carbon-neutral by 2040: Steel is already the most recycled material in the world; however, the network will explore new methods of making the products and processes of the industry even greener, for instance, capturing carbon emissions, harvesting untapped energy sources, and re-processing industrial and societal waste streams.

Steel is the world’s most extensively used structural material. In fact, a product is made using steel, if it is not made of steel. It is at the core of the UK manufacturing industries, for example, the packaging, construction, defense, and car industries. Steel is an essential part of the UK’s upcoming national infrastructure like energy, transport, and communications, and for high-tech 21st-century sectors, ranging from wind turbines to energy-positive buildings and electric vehicles.

SUSTAIN’s work is expected to:

  • Increase jobs in the sector to 35,000
  • Increase productivity by as much as 15%
  • Double the gross value added (GVA) of the UK steel manufacturers by 2030

This news is a massive vote of confidence in the steel industry. It will support the industry’s vision for a responsible, innovative and creative future. We are already on the road to clean, green and smart steelmaking, but this is another giant step forward. Research and innovation are the bedrock of a modern steel industry. This network represents almost the whole UK steel sector, with researchers and companies working together on an unprecedented scale. Here in Swansea we’re proud to lead it.

Dr Cameron Pleydell-Pearce, SUSTAIN’s Deputy Director and Steel Expert, Swansea University

This new boost of innovation funding into the sector is a vital piece of the puzzle to help deliver our vision of a cutting-edge, vibrant, and sustainable steel industry in the UK. The future success of our sector rests on our ability to remain at the forefront of product and process innovation, delivering the new steel products demanded by our customers and society. This new hub will enable us to do just that.

Gareth Stace, Director General, UK Steel

Steel is fundamental to every aspect of society. Developing higher performance steels with reduced carbon footprint during manufacture is key to reducing CO2 emissions and therefore contributing to the reduction in global warming. This grant brings together all the UK experts in steel to address this critical issue.

Mark Rainforth, Professor¸ The University of Sheffield

The UK has a rich tradition of research excellence and innovation in steel metallurgy. SUSTAIN will bring together leading research groups in this area, as well as introducing new expertise in big data and supply chain innovation, to work collaboratively with the UK industry. The network will be able to tackle the large issues facing the steel industry, particularly in becoming low energy, carbon neutral, dynamic and responsive to customer needs. It is an exciting time to be working on steel as there are opportunities to contribute to making the planet a greener place.

Claire Davis, Professor. WMG, The University of Warwick

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