A defining moment for Wales: University urges politicians to act fast to back innovation in steel

Wales can continue to lead the world in steel innovation - the bedrock of a 21st century steel industry - but politicians in Wales have to act fast to prevent this lead being lost, said Swansea University, as it called for backing for a new proposal for a national innovation and technology centre for steel.

The new centre would bring together experts from several universities and from the industry, and see them working together to deliver the high-value products which are central to a 21st century steel industry.  

The call comes at a time of continuing uncertainty over the future of the steel industry, with concerns that Wales may lose its historic leading role in steel research and innovation.   Swansea University experts have raised fears of a brain drain and loss of highly-skilled jobs on the research side, as well as in the steelworks and supply chain.

University Vice Chancellor Professor Richard Davies said that this was a “defining moment for Wales”, with a stark and urgent choice between keeping Wales as the heart of a 21st century UK steel industry, or overseeing decline and potentially allowing others to profit. 

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Picture: Steel seen at the nano scale.  The Advanced Imaging of Materials team at Swansea University have developed new  steels which are strengthened by tiny nano-level structures, which are the same length as a human fingernail grows in 1 second.   These new steels are now being used to make a new generation of lighter and more efficient cars.

Swansea-led innovations are already demonstrating that steel is a 21st century industry, with academics and the industry working hand in hand on tomorrow’s technologies, including: 

  • New steel-based products which turn buildings into power stations that store and release their own energy
  • Using nano-level technology to develop lighter steel for more energy-efficient cars
  • Improving the way blast furnaces are loaded and stirred, already saving over £5 million a year at Port Talbot

Read more about 21st century steel innovation led by Swansea University

More pictures of 21st century steel

‌All this work is carried out in a partnership between University researchers and the industry; the proposed new National Innovation Centre would build on this.

Specific project Wales has long been a global leader in steel innovation, with many of the industry’s giant leaps forward taking place here:  the Bessemer process, pioneered in Dowlais and Ebbw Vale; the Siemens open-hearth process, first demonstrated in Swansea;  the Gilchrist-Thomas Basic process, based on work in Blaenavon; and the pioneering Abbey Works at Port Talbot, opened in 1951.

Breakthroughs such as these have depended on close links between research and industry, the furnaces and the labs.   Nowhere are these links stronger than in Wales, as illustrated for example in Swansea University’s new Bay Campus, which stands within sight of Port Talbot steelworks.  

Picture: Zero-carbon steel?  Professor Dave Worsley with a solar cell; he leads the SPECIFIC project, which is developing steel and glass-based products that allow buildings to generate, store and release their own energy

The proposed National Innovation Centre would be called Sustain:(Strategic University Steel Technology and Innovation Network).  A partnership between industry and university-based experts, building on what already exists at Swansea, it could be a resource for the entire UK steel industry, and a global centre of expertise for 21st century steel.  

Sustain - areas it would cover:

  • Raw materials optimisation - by far the largest cost in steel operations is raw materials; the team will explore options to modernise production techniques to use more UK-derived resources from scrap, to deliver high-quality steel
  • Energy – the steel industry could dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions and even become a net provider of energy; avenues include deriving energy from waste, energy recovery, clean combustion, and using steel panels to generate renewable energy
  • Process development - the team will explore radical solutions to processing, including shifting a large fraction of steelmaking to electric arc furnaces and exploring directly reduced iron routes as a supplement for lower blast furnace production
  • New product development - in construction, automotive, tubular products and packaging, the four core markets for strip steel, the team can  work directly with the appropriate supply, bringing new products from lab to production line, as in the SPECIFIC project
  • Training and staff development - ensuring staff can rapidly adapt to changing working conditions and technology and can also provide key feedback to the research teams

Swansea University is ideally placed to lead Sustain.  It has world-leading engineering expertise and facilities at its new Bay Campus.  Its Materials and Manufacturing Academy has 84 research engineers in the steel industry.  Over 120 graduate and doctoral qualified technologists from Swansea are currently working in the Welsh steel businesses alone.

600 x 450Picture: Complex discrete element modelling undertaken at Swansea University by Marc Holmes has helped predict distribution and flow of particles in a blast furnace.  This has already produced data to help put Port Talbot in the top quartile in the world for efficiency and quality.  

Professor Dave Worsley of Swansea University, head of the SPECIFIC project, which involves researchers and industry partners working together, said:

"Steel is a 21st century industry, developing tomorrow’s technologies.   UK steel can not only survive, but thrive.   It can be transformed into a leading-edge zero carbon industry, for example  developing carbon positive products using locally generated waste products as a chemical. 

This future is already starting to happen in the work we are carrying out at Swansea University. 

Wales can continue to play a leading role in steel, at the heart of a vibrant and innovative 21st century industry.  To do so it must focus on making high-value products.  This is only possible with support for innovation, which is why backing for Sustain is so important."   

Swansea University Vice Chancellor Professor Richard B Davies said:

"Welsh steel can be an industry of the future, not the past.  Wales can be a world leader in the 21st century, as it was in the 19th and 20th.  

This can only happen if we have a strong base for innovation – the bedrock of the 21st century steel industry.   This is why we are calling on Welsh politicians to support our plan for a national centre for innovation and technology in steel.  

Much is outside their control in the current situation.  However, vowing to maintain Wales’s leading role, by supporting our proposal, would be a vote of confidence in steel, and in Wales.

Swansea has always been at the forefront of innovation in the metals industry.   That remains the case today.  We have a wealth of expertise and talent, and a rich network of partnerships with the industry.   That is too precious a resource for Wales to waste.

We are at a defining moment for Wales. There is no time to lose.

Swansea University is already showing how steel can be a 21st century industry.  We stand ready to work with partners and with politicians to ensure that Wales remains a world leader."

In figures:   Swansea - the natural home for steel innovation

  • 160 – approximate number of researchers working at Swansea University on steel-related innovation
  • 6 – distance in miles from Swansea University Bay Campus to Port Talbot steelworks
  • 96 – years that Swansea University has been working with the metals industry, since being founded in 1920 to meet the industry’s needs
  • 4 – number of steel plants within one hour’s drive of Swansea University, accounting for around 6067 employees
  • 120 – graduate and doctoral qualified technologists from Swansea University working in the steel industry in Wales alone
  • 1 angstrom – (one ten-billionth of a metre) – the size that new imaging microscopes at Swansea University, used to examine new steels, and amongst the most powerful in Europe, can analyse:  this is the same length as your fingernail grows in 0.1 second

In figures:  Swansea innovations making a difference‌

  • £105,000 per hour – cost of halting production at a car plant because of surface quality problems with steel, corrected by Swansea University imaging experts
  • £1.1 million per year – efficiency savings at Port Talbot blast furnace thanks to modelling work on chute designs by Swansea University researcher
  • £4.2 million per year – savings thanks to an improved stirring element in the Port Talbot blast furnace, developed by Swansea University researcher
  • 85,000 tonnes – steel supply switched to Port Talbot after Swansea University analysts identified problem with staining steel needed by Newport-based Cogent Steel, which had been imported from Netherlands
  • £48 million per year – value of extra electrical steel produced by Cogent Steel after Swansea University researchers improved the corrosion coating
  • 40 years – length of guarantee for steel treated with new anti-corrosion techniques developed by Swansea University
  • £66 million per year – estimated energy savings if 20% of the excess heat from Port Talbot was captured and reused using new thermal energy material developed at Swansea University