METALS: How grey powder is sparking new industrial revolution

Cutting the ribbon, from left: Chris Read, Dr Dion Vaughan, Lord Prior, Doug Caster and Tony Pedder
Cutting the ribbon, from left: Chris Read, Dr Dion Vaughan, Lord Prior, Doug Caster and Tony Pedder
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The contrast between the product – a non-descript grey powder – and its significance could not have been more stark.

But guests at the launch of Metalysis’ new building on the Advanced Manufacturing Park in Rotherham were repeatedly assured that this stuff was set to spark a revolution.

The grey metal powder that's sparking a revolution.

The grey metal powder that's sparking a revolution.

Speaker after speaker took to the stage to variously declare a revolution in metals processing, a revolution in 3D printing and finally the dawn of the “fourth industrial revolution”.

But while assorted business people, politicians, academics and journalists were left in no doubt about the importance of the moment they were witnessing, what does it all mean?

Metalysis has developed a new way to create pure metal powders that is cheaper, greener and faster than traditional methods.

It uses electrodes in a salt bath at 1,000°C and will allow the firm to produce hundreds of tonnes of highly-prized powdered metal – such as titanium – for 3D printed parts used in the aerospace and automotive industries.

Dr Dion Vaughan with a Gen 2 module at the launch of Metalysis.

Dr Dion Vaughan with a Gen 2 module at the launch of Metalysis.

The ‘additive manufacturing’ sector is growing 30 per cent each year because it allows new, complicated components to be made that just weren’t possible before.

Cheap production, meanwhile, means hi-tech metals can be used in more everyday products, creating entirely new markets. The exhaust on your family car might end up being made from lightweight, heat- resistant titanium one day.

But that’s not all, Metalysis’ patented production process allows any number of the 60 metallic elements to be combined to form an alloy.

In mathematical terms that’s ‘10 to the power of 40’ of new metals. Chief executive Dr Dion Vaughan sums it up simply as “gazillions”.

Metalysis' new HQ on the AMP.

Metalysis' new HQ on the AMP.

Dr Vaughan, who started his career as a metallurgist at Forgemasters in Sheffield, said: “By the 1980s all the combinations that could be achieved by melting had been discovered. There followed a very difficult period.

“Now, we are looking at a metals processing revolution potentially here in Sheffield City Region.”

Thankfully, powerful computers can guesstimate which ones might have the most useful properties.

But even the promise of never-ending discoveries isn’t an end to this company’s disruptive plans.

Dr Dion Vaughan in his new office with the Rolls Royce factory behind.

Dr Dion Vaughan in his new office with the Rolls Royce factory behind.

It is also perfecting ‘reactors’ that make industrial quantities of powdered metal that can be easily transported and linked to form a production line.

They have been designed to be retro-fitted in disused steelworks and industrial sites to take advantage of existing buildings, cranes and high capacity power supplies.

The reactors will cost ‘a few million’ each but using existing infrastructure slashes the overall costs.

This opens up the possibility of disused Sheffield steelworks making metals again.

Perhaps when they said revolution they meant ‘makes your head spin’.

Rotherham leader Coun Chris Read at the launch of Metalysis.

Rotherham leader Coun Chris Read at the launch of Metalysis.

Lord Prior at the launch of Metalysis.

Lord Prior at the launch of Metalysis.

Chairman Doug Caster CBE at the launch of Metalysis.

Chairman Doug Caster CBE at the launch of Metalysis.