Industry and science closely intertwined
Interview with Henning Fehrmann, director of the metalworking company Fehrmann Metallverarbeitung GmbH
Henning Fehrmann’s company manufactures high-strength aluminium – and works in close cooperation with the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht. The experts from the Centre for High-Performance Materials (ZHM) examine the alloys with sensitive analysis methods and microscope technologies. After two and a half years, the joint project resulted in an aluminium alloy that is nearly as strong as steel.
Photo: HZG/ Christian Schmid
Mr Fehrmann, your company produces high-performance aluminium alloys. What is special about these materials?
Aluminium is light and relatively inexpensive. This is why components that require reduced weight are increasingly produced in aluminium, such as in the automotive sector as well as for constructing industrial plants. However, aluminium – compared to steel, for example – is limited in its mechanical properties. With our alloys, we are trying to improve these properties. We were able to develop an aluminium alloy quite some time ago, which stretches up to twelve percent when stressed and can thus be used in areas with high explosion risk, such as for tankers or grain transporters. And now, together with the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, a two-and-a-half-year long project has made it possible to develop a new type of alloy, the strength of which is in the same range as normal steel. In comparison, standard aluminium alloys are only about half as strong as steel.
How was the cooperation with the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht established?
"Aluminium – compared to steel, for example - is limited in its mechanical properties. A two-and-a-half-year long project together with the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht has made it possible to develop a new type of alloy, the strength of which is in the same range as normal steel." Photo: HZG/ Christian Schmid
The plans for a new high-performance alloy had already been in the pipeline for quite some time. At the beginning of 2014, we started looking for a partner. The Innovation Contact Point (IKS) of Hamburg helped us here. The IKS visits companies in the region, inquiring about their requirements in matters of research and development. It then offers to find the companies a suitable scientific partner, free of charge. It was the IKS that gave us the contact information for the HZG scientists and Prof Norbert Huber. Right from the start of discussions, we noticed the chemistry: we sat at the table with people of conviction, who are looking forward to the project and are one hundred percent committed. At the end of 2014, we applied to the Hamburg Investment and Development Bank (IFB). Its PROFI program supports innovative research and development projects undertaken by companies in Hamburg. We have been working with the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht since then, and this cooperation has proven excellent.
How was the work divided? What was performed by your company and what was performed at the Centre for High-Performance Materials in Geesthacht?
"We developed the alloys in our company, the special formula - sometimes we call it our Coca-Cola formula." Photo: HZG/ Christian Schmid
We developed the alloys in our company, the special formula – sometimes we call it our Coca-Cola formula. Such alloys consist of aluminium, off set with other materials, especially metals, of which six to eight are decisive for the mechanical properties. We must know precisely the interactions between all these components and control the manufacturing process in all its details. This is only possible with decades of experience. We then sent samples of these new alloys to Geesthacht. There, the samples were examined in detail using many different methods: What influence do different melting processes have? What does the material fabric structure look like? What role do heat treatments have? How weldable is the material? The HZG has the necessary analysis devices as well as the staff familiar with these methods. This was the ideal addition to our skills.
What were the concrete benefits for you of the work undertaken by the HZG researchers?
The results of the HZG analyses formed the basis of new optimisation steps. To start with, we thought about which combination of metals could provide the desired properties. Then we created samples and had them examined in Geesthacht. Based on the results, we were able to improve the formula, to then have it examined by the researchers again. We thus moved closer to the best alloy, step by step. Together, we discussed many intermediate results and went to forums and conferences to exchange and gather information. It was a fruitful and productive cooperation – without the research at the Centre for High-Performance Materials in Geesthacht, we would never have been able to develop the new material in such a targeted way.
And what did the result look like?
"I believe that joint projects in which we can combine our respective strenghts are incredibly important for the future." Photo: HZG/ Christian Schmid
After two and a half years, the alloy has now been fi nished, and it is better than we imagined at the beginning of the project. At the beginning, our goal was to develop a corrosion-resistant aluminium alloy with a strength comparable to steel. We actually exceeded this goal because we also succeeded in achieving a twenty percent elongation at break – the material can stretch up to twenty percent before breaking. We are also very satisfied with the weldability. The initial goal has thus been exceeded and, in the meantime, we have applied for a patent for the new alloy.
Where could the new high-strength aluminium alloy be utilised?
Especially in areas that require reduced weight – and this is the case for nearly seventy percent of the aluminium market. Because our alloy is clearly more stretchresistant than standard aluminium, many components can be made leaner and therefore lighter. Compared to standard alloys, we are anticipating a weight reduction of up to fifty percent. In the automotive sector, for example, this would make it possible to reduce the weight of cars and therefore also the amount of fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. Electric cars could be made lighter, which would improve their range. Wind power plants could be made to be more
efficient. Some steel components could even be replaced, as our alloy is as strong as steel. This could even provide weight advantages of over sixty percent. Another positive aspect is that our aluminium alloy is corrosion-resistant and therefore does not require a corrosion protection coating as many other alloys do.
Do you believe that such cooperative projects between companies and research facilities could become the norm in the future?
Photo: HZG/ Christian Schmid
I see the need for industry and science to be better linked. And I hope that our project will be visible as a best-practise example that shows how well such a cooperation can work. The scientific community complains that small and midsized companies in northern Germany are not aware enough of research and that it is difficult to introduce their methods and skills into the industry. I hope that our project will serve as a beacon in helping dismantle the fear of contact on both sides because trust can only be built when people get to know each other. And co31 operation is only possible when trust has been built. The goal is linking science and industry more tightly together. The strength of industry is that it is very close to the market and therefore able to identify its demands. The strength of research facilities, on the other hand, is developing new solutions on a scientific basis. I believe that joint projects in which we can combine our respective strengths are incredibly important for the future.
Encouraged by the success of the first project, a new cooperation with the Centre for High-Performance Materials is already underway. What is the subject of this collaboration?
"We now want to make a high-performance alloy that is suitable for 3D printing. That is why my company has formed a strategic alliance with the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht." Photo: HZG/ Christian Schmid
My company has entered into a strategic alliance with the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht to further develop the cooperation. Our new joint project concerns a high-performance aluminium for 3D printing – we are talking about additive manufacturing. The basic material is aluminium powder, which is then melted into components by laser. I am convinced that this production method will have an enormous market in the future. The reason for this is that when building a component, one has much more freedom than with conventional manufacturing methods. It also saves material and therefore weight. Currently, however, there are not many aluminium alloys that are suitable for additive manufacturing. This is why we now want to make a high-performance alloy that is
suitable for 3D printing. We have submitted an application for a research project to the German Federal Ministry for Research and Development, together with the HZG, the Laser Centre North and the TÜV North. In the project, planned for a two-year period, we want to optimise several alloys for 3D printing as well as compare different laser processes. In the end, we should have created new aluminium powders that are already approved by the TÜV. The initial tests have already provided excellent results. This is why we are optimistic that this joint project will also be a success.
The interview was conducted by science journalist and physicist Frank Grotelüschen in the manufacturing hall of Henning Fehrmann in Hamburg.
Published in in2science #5 (December 2017)