Bringing advanced lightweight metals to the market
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Bringing advanced lightweight metals to the market

Aug 30, 2023

Despite decades of scientific research into advanced lightweight metal alloys, only a limited number of products have reached the market. A new open innovation ecosystem aims to shorten this pathway.

Lightweight metal alloy composites are increasingly critical for components in the automotive, aerospace and manufacturing industries. These materials have high strength-to-weight ratios and low density, meaning vehicles are lighter, consume less fuel and therefore produce lower levels of harmful emissions. With the advent of nanomaterials offering superior properties, a new class of nanocomposites is being developed and will be able to overcome technical limitations of pure metals. Despite many research projects focusing on these advanced materials over the past few decades, there have been only a limited number of products that have made it to the market. Limited funding for development and upscaling has hampered their progress, and there has been reluctance among end users to accept non-standardised technologies. The industry has been faced with a phenomenon known as the ‘valley of death’, where these promising materials never reach their full potential.To overcome these barriers, the EU-funded LightMe (An Open Innovation Ecosystem for upscaling production processes of lightweight metal alloys composites) project developed an open innovation ecosystem designed to upscale industrial processes for lightweight metals. LightMe aimed to be a point of reference for innovation in lightweight metal matrix nanocomposites (MMnCs) – alloys reinforced with high-strength particles.

LightMe comprised 25 partners from 15 European Member States, all bringing knowledge and expertise to help boost innovation and development for lightweight metals. The LightMe consortium was represented by a non-profit organisation through which new clients can access the entire value chain. LightMe was designed not only to help with the development and upscaling of metal technologies, but also to provide clients with everything they need to speed up the process to the market. This includes modelling and simulation services, testing and monitoring, as well as advice on regulatory compliance, nanosafety and business plan development.The system was designed to function as a bridge between upstream members of the value chain, such as material developers and research institutions, and the downstream end users and industrial manufacturers.

The LightMe project created six pilot lines with advanced manufacturing services accessible across Europe. These included low pressure die casting, high pressure die casting, green sand casting, metal wire additive manufacturing, metal additive manufacturing and sintering extrusion.LightMe ran several test cases using these pilot lines to develop new material technologies and generate feedback to improve the services offered. For example, one test case with manufacturing company Hidria sought to produce lightweight steering pinions – a part that allows the wheels to turn side to side – using aluminium MMnCs. LightMe partners Brunel University London and the Austrian Foundry Research Institute produced prototype products, showing that the manufacturing technology could bring significant benefits to the European automotive industry.

The project led to the publication of three peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals, including on the further development of advanced techniques for the production of metal matrix composites.The LightMe team also organised the first international conference on lightweight materials, held in May 2023. The two-day conference gathered technical presentations in the field of lightweight materials, with submissions from academia and industry professionals.

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