Smarter, greener, cleaner steel: £35 million for Swansea-led research

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A smart, green and clean steel industry will come a giant step closer thanks to a new £35 million research network, announced today, which will see steelmakers and university experts work together on a seven-year research programme to transform the UK steel sector.

The network, called SUSTAIN, is led by Swansea University, partnered with the Universities of Sheffield and Warwick, and involves more than twenty partners across the UK steel industry: companies, trade bodies, academic experts and research organisations.  It is supported by a £10 million investment from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council as it will be one of their Future Manufacturing Research Hubs. 

The announcement is a landmark as it is the first time that UK steel producers and representatives from the manufacturing sector have lined up behind a co-ordinated programme of research.  It is also the largest ever single investment in steel research by a UK research council.  The plan is that SUSTAIN will be a seed from which much wider research and innovation will grow, drawing on expertise across UK academia and beyond.

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Picture: computer model for loading blast furnaces, based on Swansea University research, which has improved the efficiency of one of the Port Talbot furnaces, saving £1.1 million a year in energy and raw materials.

The aim of SUSTAIN is to transform the whole steel supply chain, making it cleaner, greener and smarter, and more responsive to the fast-changing needs of customers.  Its work will be concentrated on two areas:

Zero waste iron and steelmaking, with the aim of making the industry carbon-neutral by 2040:  Steel is already the world’s most recycled material, but the network will investigate new ways of making the industry’s processes and products even greener, such as harvesting untapped energy sources, capturing carbon emissions and re-processing societal and industrial waste streams.

Smart steel processing: like any 21st century industry, steelmaking involves masses of data. SUSTAIN will develop new ways of acquiring and using this data in new metallurgical processes, which can deliver bespoke high tech products.

Steel is the most widely-used structural material in the world.  If a product isn’t made of steel it’s made using steel. 

Steel is at the heart of UK manufacturing sectors such as the car industry, construction, packaging and defence.  It is an indispensable component of the UK’s future national infrastructure such as transport, communications and energy, and for high-tech 21st century industries, from energy-positive buildings to wind turbines and electric vehicles.

The work of SUSTAIN is projected to:

  • Double UK steel manufacturers’ gross value added (GVA) by 2030
  • Boost jobs in the industry to 35,000
  • Increase productivity by 15%

Dr Cameron Pleydell-Pearce, steel expert at Swansea University and SUSTAIN’s deputy director, said:

“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.”

Swansea University and steel 

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Picture:  a steel sheet on the production line at SPECIFIC, which develops "Active Buildings" that generate, store and release their own solar energy.

Gareth Stace, UK Steel Director General, said:

“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.”

Professor Mark Rainforth of The University of Sheffield said:

“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”.

Professor Claire Davis, from WMG, University of Warwick comments:

“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.”

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Picture:  Swansea University Bay Campus, with Tata Steel Port Talbot across the bay.  International evidence shows that success in steel comes from having research and industry located close to each other.