Mechanical characterisation of high-performance materials has been a long-standing area of expertise at Swansea University. A succession of academics has promoted an intimate relationship with the power generation industry, in particular, working on alloys aligned to gas turbine technologies. A world-renowned research group focussing on high-temperature creep, fatigue and associated modes of operation has developed over the years, supported by world-class mechanical test facilities.
This provenance has culminated in the Institute of Structural Materials (ISM), recently awarded Major Research Facility status by Swansea University and housed in a purpose-designed, bespoke facility on the new Bay Campus to the east of the city. Completed in 2014, the ISM Building houses a mix of academic and commercial activities. In 2009 the University incorporated a wholly-owned “spin-out” company – Swansea Materials Research & Testing Ltd (SMaRT) sitting under the ISM umbrella, supplying design quality mechanical property data to the wider structural integrity sector. SMaRT now delivers mechanical testing and understanding in support of both commercial and research contracts across campus (for an expanding customer/sponsor base) and formed a key entity at the heart of the University’s strategic plans to establish a ‘Science and Innovation Campus’ in Swansea. The combination of academic research supported by an ISO 17025 accredited test facility now delivers a unique model to the industry. Rolls-Royce has placed the significant onus on SMaRT, to act as an approved supplier for mechanical property understanding, in competition with the wider commercial test house community, at technology readiness levels (TRL) 0 to 4. SMaRT test capabilities deliberately interface with the state of the art Rolls-Royce facility opened in Berlin, Germany in 2010 (Mechanical Test Operations Centre – MTOC) with MTOC retaining the focus on in-service support and materials database generation at higher TRL levels.
The Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre in Materials, also based within the ISM, results from the links forged with this major multi-national enterprise since the early 1970s. Research projects span traditional research contracts, typically based over a two or three year period, to reactive short term consultancies – often formulated at the shortest of notice and aimed at understanding in-service gas turbine operations. Long term research interests have provided a fundamental understanding of microstructure property relationships in titanium, nickel, advanced steels and metal or ceramic-based composites. Stemming from this materials knowledge, living methodologies have been developed to predict the performance of components under arduous service conditions. The UTC activities currently support a team of six academics, fifteen research officers, eight support staff and thirty plus EngD/PhD students.
The twin requirements of sustainability for existing metal resources and the development of novel metallic systems for future application form the heart of the EPSRC / Rolls-Royce Strategic Partnership in Structural Metallic Systems for Gas Turbine Applications, in collaboration with the Universities of Birmingham and Cambridge. The Strategic Partnership was awarded subsequent to discussions with the UK government, recognising the need for increased support for traditional metals based R&D on the national stage. Uniquely, the scheme combines postdoctoral research programmes spanning a ten-year horizon with a doctoral training partnership (DTP) to develop high calibre materials engineers for the UK metals community. The Partnership encourages inclusivity from other research sponsors. To that end, Swansea University is extending longstanding links with Timet (Europe’s largest processor of titanium alloys) and the TWI NDE Validation Centre (Wales).
All Partnership projects address topics of immediate or long term industrial relevance for the aero-engine, land and marine power generation sectors. Students are often embedded in the sponsoring company, soaking up the day to day experience of a practising engineer. Research Engineers benefit from bespoke training incorporating case studies from our industry-facing research plus professional and management training. This offers significant advantages when faced with gaining long term career employment. Numerous examples are available where students have progressed to senior positions not only within Rolls-Royce but also Airbus and Timet, taking on International responsibilities after a relatively short timescale.
The entire research programme impacts upon the sustainable use of structural materials. Specifically, our core interests address the internationally agreed “ACARE 2020” and “Flightpath 2050” targets for more efficient gas turbine operation with accompanying reductions in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This will be achieved by engine designs that operate at higher temperatures compared to the existing fleet, thus pushing the capability of existing metallic systems to their structural limits. The characterisation of metallic systems fabricated by advanced processing techniques is central to our interest. In addition, novel ‘Vision 20’ alloys are also under investigation – a new generation of materials for potential entry into service within 20 years (e.g. alloys beyond polycrystalline or single crystal forms of nickel currently used as the basis for high-pressure turbine operations).
Our ongoing portfolio in terms of power generation materials includes contributions to large scale initiatives funded through Innovate UK and the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), including:
- SAMULET II (Strategic Affordable Manufacturing of UK Leading Environmental Technologies):
- Advanced Repair Technologies (Cost Efficient High Integrity Blisk Repair):
- SILOET II (Strategic Investment in Low Energy Turbines):
- CMC and High Temperature Technologies;
- High Temperature Nickel Alloys;
- High Temperature Capability – Compressors and Discs;
- High Temperature Turbine Technology and Demonstration.
All of the above projects are aimed at improving manufacturing processes, increasing the material “fly to buy ratio” and to increase gas turbine efficiency. It is estimated that the deliverables from this combined portfolio should contribute to a 1% improvement in specific fuel consumption in Rolls-Royce civil engines, yielding a reduction of between 500 and 1000 tonnes of CO2 per aircraft per year within the next ten years, depending upon aircraft configuration and loading.
Prof Martin Bache
Director – Rolls-Royce UTC in Materials Institute of Structural Materials
Tel: +44 (0)1792 295287